Bob Smizik: Real reason for Bicknell firing

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When a team goes 8-8, especially at team with a history of success, it’s not surprising when there are changes in the coaching staff. But that did not alter the level of surprise when offensive line coach Jack Bicknell was fired yesterday by Mike Tomlin.

In a bland statement, Tomlin said, “I have decided to go in a different direction with respect to the coaching of our offensive line. I want to thank Jack for his contributions during the 2013 season, and I wish him well in the future.”

The real reason for the firing wasn’t so bland. Post-Gazette Steelers beat reporter Gerry Dulac had the inside story. He wrote:

''... the move is not surprising because Bicknell’s role slowly diminished after the Steelers had problems protecting Ben Roethlisberger and running the football in the first half of the season. In fact, for most of the second half of the season, offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett was doing a lot of the instruction and daily handling of the offensive line – duties normally performed by the offensive line coach."

Given that information, no one, including Bicknell, should have been surprised by the decision. Bicknell was with the team only one season. He replaced Sean Kugler, who left to become the head coach at UTEP, his alma mater.

As the season drew to a close, there was a near-unanimous feeling among fans and media that the line had improved considerably during the season. The running game was working better and level of protection for Ben Roethlisberger had upgraded significantly.

Of course, in the eyes of Tomlin it wasn’t Bicknell but Sarrett who got that credit.

Despite the improvement, the numbers were not pretty. The Steelers were 27th in the NFL in rushing yards at 1,383 and 29th in yards per attempt at 3.5.

By comparison, in 2012 they were ranked 26 in yards (1,537) and 28th in average (3.7). In 2011, there were 14th in yards (1,903) and 11th in average (4.4).

Additionally, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 43 times, tied for 14th highest. The two previous seasons those numbers were 49 and 42.

The lack of improvement in two second-round draft choices, tackles Michael Adams (2012) and Marcus Gilbert (2011) might have played a role in Bicknell’s firing. Adams opened the season as the starting left tackle but was benched after four games. Gilbert maintained his starting role at right tackle all season but allowed 11 of the 43 sacks of Roethlisberger and 30 quarterback hurries.

Tomlin is now looking for his fourth offensive line coach in what will be his eighth season as head coach. His first line coach was Larry Zierlein, who was with the team from 2007-09.

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