Gene Collier: Mitchell's impact flies below radar, but is huge just the same

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The National Football League's reliably dazzling stable of running backs staged no fewer than 159 performances last year of 100 or more yards gained in a single television episode, which means that nearly nine times per weekend, someone ripped somebody's rush defense to tatters.

All of those performances -- everything from Tiki Barber's show-closing, career-signature 234-yard three-touchdown cadenza for the New York Giants against Washington Dec. 30 to Reuben Droughns' somehow less than memorable 100 thudding yards for the Browns against Oakland 13 weeks earlier -- had this one thing in common.

None of them came against the Steelers, the only team unvanquished by the adventures of the 100-yard rusher.

The reasons for this distinction (and not that it mattered all that much on a 2006 Steelers team vanquished 997 other ways including via motorcycle) are as familiar in this town as names such as Casey Hampton and James Farrior and Troy Polamalu. Students of football architecture might credit it as much to soon-to-be 70-year-old run stopper Dick LeBeau.

But don't go too deep into any factorial litany without bringing up John Mitchell, whom Mike Tomlin brought up Monday, brought him all the way up to assistant head coach in fact. To be precise, Tomlin didn't put "make Mitchell asst. head coach" on his list of things to do first thing Monday morning just last weekend. He knew he was going to do it back in June, after less than six months in the presence of the quiet defensive line coach with the 35 years of experience.

"Every player coach Mitchell gets improves dramatically," LeBeau was saying just before lunch yesterday. "They might not improve dramatically enough to make the football team all the time, but every single player gets better with coach Mitchell. I've always had great confidence in him."

Among all the seriously impressive aspects of the Tomlin persona so exhaustively documented to this point, none might be as critical to this particular Steelers team as the new head coach's demonstrated education. If you define an educated person as the extent to which that person recognizes the scope and depth of what they don't know, then you understand the benefits of having a 35-year-old head coach who knows he doesn't know what John Mitchell knows, what Dick LeBeau knows. Both started coaching in the autumn after Tomlin's first birthday.

Mitchell, the Steelers' longest-tenured coach, deflected any fuss over his appointment, his role in the accomplishment of one of the most-decorated defenses in the league, his impact on individual players, and just about anything else for which anyone might be compelled to give him credit.

"I have great people," Mitchell said of his linemen during a walk on campus. "Chris Hoke is one of the finest people I've ever met, same with Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Travis Kirschke, Casey Hampton. They're people who want to get better. I don't have to do much. I can coach them hard. They don't take anything I say personally because all they want is to be better football players.

"Look, the people I coach have been playing football a long time. They have a framework for the way they do things and I'm fine with that as long as it fits into the defense. If it doesn't, then we have to have a talk with coach LeBeau, but, basically, I'm not a guy who cares much which hand you put down. On Sunday, all anybody will remember is whether you made the tackle."

Mitchell started making many notable tackles all the way back in 1971 as an All-American at Alabama, where he was the first African-American to play for the Crimson Tide. Two years later, he took an assistant-coaching job under a living legend named Bear Bryant. Though the coaching life eventually brought Mitchell to Bill Cowher's staff in 1994, where he withstood a series of Cowher's blustery staff remakes, his abilities went pretty much unappreciated by the wider audience until 2004, when a key injury to Hampton introduced Steeler fans to the amazingly capable Hoke. When Keisel starred in the Steelers' playoff run to its fifth Super Bowl two years ago, the notion that a Mitchell student could be plugged in effectively anywhere on the defensive line became dogma.

Though he never said it publicly, Mitchell fairly bristled at the suggestion that were Tomlin to bring his favored 4-3 defensive alignment to Pittsburgh, the Steelers might not have the personnel to play it.

"We could do it tomorrow," Mitchell said. "They're so interchangeable that most teams who play a 4-3 are doing things the same way the 3-4 teams do things. We could put Chris Hoke onto that defensive line, rotate the linebackers, and I don't know what offenses would do, really. Do you double-team Chris Hoke and let Hampton go. Double-team Hampton? Do you want a running back blocking a 6-5, 300-pound defensive tackle."

Mitchell says Tomlin never once flashed any preconceived preference on defense, and LeBeau says his opinion is that the club's best chance to be successful is to play the 3-4 because it is the defense in which it has devoted the most time. But LeBeau agreed with Mitchell on when the 4-3 could be implemented should Tomlin will it.


When it happens, if it happens, Mitchell will likely coach the heck out of it, and most certainly without ever raising his voice.

"Coach Bryant wasn't a screamer," Mitchell said, with a laugh, "and I noticed he had some success."


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