ROSSI: Munchak as important as any Steeler not named Roethlisberger
He probably isn't high on your list of Steelers to watch during training camp. He might not make your list of Steelers you could mention off the top of your head. He definitely won't play a single down of football for the Steelers this season.
But Mike Munchak is easily as important as any Steeler not named Ben Roethlisberger.
Yeah, Munchak is the offensive line coach, but consider what we already know about these Steelers as they approach a 50th training camp at picturesque and historic St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
We know Roethlisberger is coming his the greatest season of his likely Hall of Fame career. We know he can count as his primary weapons arguably the NFL's best wide receiver in Antonio Brown and inarguably its most dynamic running back in Le'Veon Bell.
But we also know that Bell could miss the first three regular-season games, punishment (and just at that) for his brain-cramping, marijuana-driving idiocy late in last training camp.
And we know the defense — Steelers' historic calling card — is, at best, a work in progress.
After all those years of The Nation calling for the Steelers to go young and fresh on defense well, the Steelers have at least gone different.
New defensive coordinator Keith Butler should bring fresh ideas to the departed Dick LeBeau's 3-4 zone-blitz scheme. But nobody would call Cameron Heyward or Lawrence Timmons young. They're not old, either. They're the best players and the best-positioned to lead a group of mostly inexperienced teammates on an unimposing defense.
Last season, the defense ranked 15th in points and yards-per-game allowed. With the benefit of perspective, those ratings look all right considering the Steelers recorded only 33 sacks and 21 turnovers.
Quite clearly, this is one of the most important camps for any Steelers defense.
Returning all of his starters: So how does any of this make the offensive line coach second only to the franchise quarterback in terms of importance to the Steelers?
Well, that offensive line coach has all of his starters coming back.
About a decade has passed since the franchise quarterback has been given that luxury.
It's been about half that long since the Steelers won a playoff game.
It's not a coincidence the Steelers' last playoff win came in a game in which they rushed twice as often as they passed, controlled possession for almost 35 minutes, and kept the defense fresh enough to overcome a couple of interceptions by the quarterback.
Or maybe you remember the 2010 AFC title game differently?
We should see it as the template.
The teams that win (or should win; see: Seahawks) in January and February are the teams that can run the football.
As much as they have improved, the Steelers still need to be consistently better at running the football.
That burden falls only on the OL coach and an offensive line that deserves no excuses, given its collection of talent, experience and cohesiveness.
From left-to-right: Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert.
Intriguing group: This is one intriguing group, anchored by an elite middleman, one side with men playing for new contracts, another scrappers-turned-starters. This group protected Roethlisberger well last season. He was sacked only 33 times, and the website Pro Football Focus recorded Roethlisberger under pressure on only 27.9 percent of Steelers' passing plays — a whopping 5.5 percent below the league average.
But the Steelers ended last season with 212 rushing yards in its final four games, including an AFC wild-card loss to Baltimore.
Bell was healthy for 10 of those 16 quarters, so his injury against Cincinnati and absence against Baltimore was only part of a peculiar narrative.
When the weather turned last December, the Steelers' running game went cold.
The narrative of the last great Steelers' offensive line, the one Roethlisberger played behind his first two seasons, was that they could bulldoze holes for any running back.
We still don't know how much of Bell's magnificent second NFL season was due to the offensive line or his ridiculous ability to turn an inch into 20 yards.
We'll find out soon enough, because Bell won't be breaking big runs until perhaps October.
High expectations: Expectations are high again in this town with the great football team. A division title does that. Though, around here, so does a third-place finish.
What we know about these Steelers is they face the NFL's toughest schedule, which they'll begin without their MVP running back.
We know every conversation begins with the potential for their offense.
We know every sentence ends with the defense and a question mark.
We've always thought the best offense is a good defense, but we're living in a new football world where the best defense is a great offense.
And in the NFL, adjustments come quickly from one year to the next.
In his second training camp with the Steelers, Munchak must make a big adjustment. He must take a good offensive line and make it great.
If Munchak can get his group to give any running back a good chance to gain yards against any defense, then Big Ben can turn these Steelers Super by simply doing his thing — and keeping his own defense off the field.