Offensive line thriving under Munchak
PITTSBURGH — Mike Munchak doesn’t live in a bubble.
If anything, he makes it a point to avoid it.
So do the players he mentors as the offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So when the Hall of Famer’s name popped up as a candidate for the open head coaching job in Arizona this week, Munchak didn’t ignore the elephant in the room.
Neither did his guys.
“We told him to enjoy the West Coast,” Chris Hubbard said with a laugh. “Enjoy being out there closer to your daughter.”
Hubbard was kidding. For now anyway.
Just because the AFC North champions have given the Cardinals permission to interview Munchak doesn’t mean he’s going to get the job.
Then again, if Munchak needs a reference or two, he won’t lack for volunteers.
Look no further than the group Munchak has helped turn into one of the best offensive lines in the league, one bent on making sure their mentor will have to wait until early February before moving on to the next opportunity should one come along.
Over the course of the past four seasons, Munchak has taken a line filled with disparate personalities and pedigrees and turned it into a cohesive group and made most of them millionaires several times over in the process. When asked if Munchak deserves a cut of the profits, to a man they say yes.
Of course, Munchak would never take it. What’s the fun in that when he can use the knowledge he’s one of the lowest-paid guys in the room — and the only one, by the way, with a bust in Canton, Ohio — to bring out the sense of humor he uses to disarm and instruct, often at the same time. Film sessions are equal parts teaching mechanism and stand-up act.
“He’ll make fun of you in a funny, nonaggressive way, not to where (you’re offended),” said four-time Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro, whose rise to one of the best in the league coincided with Munchak’s arrival in 2014.
“If he makes fun of you, you laugh about it but then it’s still in the back of your head right, so you remember (the lesson) at the same time.”
Four years and four playoff berths into Munchak’s tenure, the lessons have been many. While left tackle Alejandro Villanueva stressed the line’s only goal is “to win the game and keep (quarterback) Ben (Roethlisberger) upright,” let’s give it a try anyway.
Over the first decade of Roethlisberger’s career, he was sacked an average of 42 times a season. Since Munchak arrived, that number has dropped to 22¢ a season.
Though there are other factors at play, namely Roethlisberger’s continued evolution, the presence of some of the best skill position players in the league in wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, the line’s contributions can’t be overlooked.
And those contributions start with Munchak, who has preached an ethos that could best be described as a jumbo-sized version of the “Three Musketeers.”
“He created an offensive line and an offensive line is not about individuals, it’s about the collective culture you have in the room,” said Villanueva, a former practice squad player who made his first Pro Bowl this season.
“I’ve been nothing more than a product of his environment, the standards that he sets and the way he coaches.”
A method that resonates in a room filled with everything from surefire bets DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey (both former first-round picks) to undrafted free agents such as Villanueva, Hubbard and left guard Ramon Foster.
Despite a resume that includes a Hall of Fame jacket and a spot on the 1980s All-Decade team during his career with the Houston Oilers, Munchak carries himself like an everyman.
“He understands the game so well so it makes you feel very comfortable when you talk to him about things,” Villanueva said. “He’s not panicking or freaking out when some things are not going right. He’s always the same consistent person every single day.”
Things have rarely gone wrong for the Steelers this season. The line has stayed remarkably healthy, the only real trouble spot coming when right tackle Marcus Gilbert served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancers policy.
Hubbard stepped in and played admirably in Gilbert’s absence. The Steelers went 3-1 during that stretch, the only loss to New England in a game that wasn’t decided until the final seconds.
“He treats everybody the same, he has no favorites,” Hubbard said. “That’s a big part of what we have. That’s why we’re so close. We can talk about anything that may go on.”
Including Munchak’s possible departure. Yet the men Munchak coaches aren’t wasting any time getting prematurely nostalgic. They’re well aware Munchak, who went 22-26 in three seasons as head coach in Tennessee from 2011-13, is capable of taking over the big job.
And they’ll be the first ones to congratulate him if it happens. There’s also a job to do. What better way to bolster Munchak’s stock than by having the line help pave the way to a seventh Super Bowl?
“He teaches us to care about one another and we take that onto the field,” Villanueva said. “We care about his family, his well-being, We care about his reputation. We take that very personally.”