Mike Munchak continues to work his magic with Steelers offensive line
Maurkice Pouncey is one of the most gregarious and well-liked individuals in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room. But that doesn’t mean, by his own admission, he doesn’t have some stubbornness.
So when Mike Munchak arrived as Pouncey’s third position coach over his four-plus seasons in the NFL, Pouncey acknowledged, at first, he was skeptical. Then, when Munchak began instructing new techniques the Steelers largely veteran offensive line hadn’t employed, well…
“Heck yeah, at first, a little bit. You are so used to doing the things you like,” Pouncey said. “But it didn’t take long before you began to see the difference that he could make, that he would make.”
And he continues to make.
Munchak presides over an offensive line that some are saying might be the best in the league, one that serves as the engine for an offense that ranks fourth in the league in yards and fifth in points heading into Sunday’s game at Baltimore. Only one team has allowed fewer sacks than the Steelers (seven through seven games). According to Pro Football Focus, a lineman has been beaten to allow Ben Roethlisberger to be hit just four times.
Oh, and the Steelers boast the AFC’s leading rusher, too.
It all reflects well on the team’s offensive linemen, all of whom, in turn, are willing to deflect credit to the offensive line coach.
“With his ability to connect with guys and the reputation he has and the respect he commands,” tackle Marcus Gilbert said, “he’s a big reason why we are who we are.”
No matter who it’s coached by, the Steelers offensive line has a combination of talent and experience matched by few teams in the NFL. The five starters combine for 38 pro seasons and more than $31 million in salary cap space (sixth-most of any team). The group has combined for 10 Pro Bowl berths and seven first- or second-team All Pro honors.
But that doesn’t explain the lineage of low-pedigree linemen Munchak has molded into starters: seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum (who earned a $24 million contract with the Jets), undrafted Chris Hubbard ($36.5 million contract with the Browns), undrafted B.J. Finney (started nine games at three positions the past three seasons) and now undrafted Matt Feiler (making his fourth start over the past nine Steelers regular-season games Sunday).
“You listen to ‘Munch’ because you know he’s been in our shoes,” Feiler said, “so he definitely knows what he’s talking about.”
Munchak was a nine-time Pro Bowl tackle who 10 times was name first- or second-team All Pro by the AP. He was on the NFL’s 1980s all-decade team and in 2001 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Center Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro perhaps also have Hall of Fame ceilings, and Munchak has refined the skills of those two and fellow established veterans Gilbert, guard Ramon Foster and tackle Alejandro Villanueva. But what has made Munchak equally as valuable to the Steelers is his work to develop the likes of Finney, Feiler and rookie third-round pick Chuks Okorafor.
“Coming into this league, your mind is kind of everywhere,” Okorafor said, “so it’s so nice knowing you have such a respected coach that can get you from (sticking his hand out, palm down, at thigh level) ‘Level A’ to (moving the hand up to eye level) to (Pro-Bowl) level.
“Having him, it gives you hope that if you listen to him, you’ll get there.”
Said young offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins: “The stuff he teaches you, I sometimes sit and think, ‘If I would have had Munch all this time, I’d be 10 times better than I already am by now.’”
When Munchak joined the Steelers in 2014, he collected his first paycheck from an NFL organization other than the Oilers/Titans over 32 years in the league. Though that represented a stark change, Munchak said he has felt at home since.
“The nicest part of being with this organization is the level of consistency in everything,” said Munchak, a Pennsylvania native and Penn State alumnus. “Your players get better and develop quicker when you have that. You see that in my position: You have the same guys and the same coach, and that allows those guys to get as good as they can get, I hope.”
Munchak said he views his job as coaching each of the dozen or so linemen he has in his room (counting the practice squad and injured reserve list). This can be done on a day-to-day basis, but it also can vary by time of the year or season. A bye week, for example, is an ideal time for younger players to refine technique.
For the veterans, the benefit they get from Munchak can come in the film room throughout the week or on the sidelines during games.
“If and adjustment comes up, they get it real quick,” Munchak said. “They don’t have any panic. It’s very calming, and I could say ‘Hey, we thought (the opponent) was going to do it this way. Let’s adjust.’ And it’s like ‘No problem.’ ”
With Munchak’s reputation as a player and position coach preceding him and head coaching experience for three seasons with the Titans, the Steelers might not be able to hold onto him forever. This past week, the NFL Network floated him as a possible candidate to coach the Browns.
“Munch, he’s done it. He was a Hall of Famer,” Pouncey said. “He’s helped us out tremendously. All of us don’t block the same, but Munch came in and taught us different techniques on how to block better and how to fit on guys better and when to be aggressive and when you shouldn’t be. So he means a lot to us and a lot to the NFL with how he changed the game.
“Me, personally, I think he should be in the Hall of Fame as a coach, too.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.