Justin Hartwig was the starting center in Super Bowl XLIII when the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals to claim their sixth Lombardi Trophy. The man most responsible for Hartwig earning that ring at the end of his career is the person who drafted him in the sixth round of the 2002 draft when he was a little-known tackle at the University of Kansas.
New Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak drafted Hartwig when he worked for the Tennessee Titans and converted him to center. Despite never playing the position previously, Hartwig became Tennessee's starter for three seasons and played eight NFL seasons before retiring in 2010.
"He was a great mentor and a great friend," Hartwig said. "I think the Steelers hit a grand slam home run in getting him. If I was drafted into another system, I don't know if I would have lasted in the NFL. He had patience with me, and he instilled confidence in me. I owe my NFL success to him."
The Steelers hired Munchak to fix an ailing offensive line that has produced unsatisfactory results in the running game and in pass protection for the past six seasons. Munchak spent the past 31 years working for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans.
Drafted out of Penn State in 1982, Munchak had a Hall of Fame playing career as an offensive guard. Upon retirement in 1993, he went to work as a coach for the organization, spending 17 seasons as the offensive line coach before ascending to head coach for the past three seasons. He was fired at the end of the 2013 season after refusing to make changes to his coaching staff.
For many years of his coaching tenure in Tennessee, the Titans ranked among the top rushing teams in the NFL. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eddie George ran for 10,000 yards over an eight-year span as a running back behind Munchak's lines. More recently, Chris Johnson rushed for 2,000 yards in 2009.
The Steelers, conversely, have ranked among the worst teams running the football the past six seasons. They finished last season ranked 27th in rushing offense and managed just 1,383 yards, their fewest since 1966.
"He can make lesser guys better, and he can make really good players great, just by the way he explains things," said former Houston and Tennessee tight end Frank Wycheck, now a sports radio personality in Nashville. "When you sign your name with H.O.F. after it, you know what you're talking about. He has that instant credibility, that instant respect. And he's not a yeller or a screamer, so guys go in with a comfort level, a respect and an attitude that they want to play for this guy."
Munchak's run-game philosophy is rooted in the inside and outside zone-blocking scheme. Many of the top rushing offenses in the league use the zone-blocking scheme, and the Steelers attempted to install it last season under former line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr.
But, in the opener in September against Munchak's Titans at Heinz Field, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season with a knee injury when guard David DeCastro's ill-fated cut-block attempt on a zone run play went awry.
Shortly thereafter, the Steelers abandon the zone scheme, even though Pouncey's replacement, Fernando Velasco, was well-schooled in it after playing for Munchak for five seasons in Tennessee.
According to Munchak's former players, the zone-blocking scheme can be difficult to learn, but once perfected it is difficult to defend.
"People with a high football IQ know that the running game starts with the five guys up front," said Brad Hopkins, a left tackle who played with Munchak in Houston and was coached by him for 12 seasons until his retirement in 2005. "That was Munch's responsibility, and he did it with zone schemes.
"It's a smart way to block things, to create holes. When you have a guy who can teach it, it will work. But there is no guarantee that it will work if you don't have the linemen who are capable of running it. For the offensive line, you have to have the timing, the communication; it's hard to implement that system. A zone team is reliant on the guy next to you rather than you relying on yourself."
Hartwig, who played for the Steelers in 2008 and 2009, said the linemen will be drilled in the classroom and on the field over and over again until they know the zone scheme inside and out.
"He's been running it his whole career," said Hartwig, who cashed in on his success in Tennessee with a big free-agent contract with Carolina in 2006. "It will be fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals and technique work. He is a great teacher. He understands the game. He's competed at that level. He knows how to drill into your head how to get the job done.
"The inside zone and outside zone were our bread and butter. That was the focus of what we did. With teams that have never run it in the past, it's definitely not something you pick up overnight, but it's extremely effective when it's run right and you have a coach to teach it. You definitely have to have the right coach for it to be effective."
Having the type of linemen to run the scheme is important, too. Hartwig, who spent an offseason and a training camp with Pouncey, said Pouncey is well-suited to be a center in a zone scheme because he is so athletic and possesses the smarts to recognize defensive alignments. He also said DeCastro will fit in well for the same reasons.
Wycheck, who played tight end in the NFL from 1993 to 2003, said Munchak will "love" working with veteran tight end Heath Miller because of his run-blocking abilities. Wycheck also said running back Le'Veon Bell is "perfect for that system."
"He's going to run the ball like Eddie George did for us," Wycheck said.
It remains to be seen how guard Ramon Foster, tackles Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams adapt to the zone scheme, though. Gilbert and Beachum, however, possess the raw athletic skills necessary for success in that system.
All three former Titans said their advice to the players who will be learning the system this spring is patience.
"It takes time, but you have to stick with it," Hartwig said. "When it becomes second nature, that's when you get really good at it. Once the linemen get it, it's going to be a big weapon.
"But there is a reason there are some teams that are successful with it and run it all the time and there are reasons teams, like the Steelers, haven't done it or have scrapped it after trying it. It's not an easy thing. Once you drill it day in and day out, it becomes second nature. It's just a matter of trying to figure it out. Munch will drill them, drill them and drill them some more."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 3, 2014 11:33 PM