It wasn’t easy to watch Mike Munchak shaking hands with his assistants on that September afternoon after the Tennessee Titans had secured a Week 1 victory at Heinz Field.
That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Sure, few predicted the Pittsburgh Steelers would go 13-3 or 12-4 in 2013, but the Steelers weren’t expected to lose at home to a Titans team coming off a 6-10 season.
It was a big step for the Titans, but a Hall of Fame offensive lineman like Munchak isn’t going to celebrate by doing pirouettes on the sidelines. Instead, there was a modest sense of satisfaction for a job well done.
Those handshakes were a sobering sight for Steelers fans. While coming to grips with the fact that the Steelers might not even match our tepid prognostications, we saw a Titans team possibly taking the first step toward becoming the NFL’s annual rags-to-riches story.
Who’d have thought that one of the Steelers’ earliest tormentors of 2013 would be on their side in 2014?
If you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em.
Munchak went 2-1 against the Steelers in his three years as the Titans head coach. But it turns out the Titans had a worse year than the 8-8 Steelers in 2013. They finished 7-9, Munchak was fired and the Steelers hired him as offensive line coach last week, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The former Penn State All-America and Scranton, Pa., native brings his workmanlike nature to Pittsburgh. Now if he’s shaking hands on the sideline near the end of any game, it’ll be because Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked or Le’Veon Bell ran for more than 100 yards in a Steelers win.
Munchak takes over the same position with the Steelers that he held with the Titans for 14 years before becoming head coach. His linemen made 10 Pro Bowls, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Before becoming the Titans’ offensive line coach, he was a nine-time Pro Bowl guard for the Houston Oilers for 12 years. So Munchak goes way back as a Steelers antagonist, starting every game for Jerry Glanville’s Oilers in 1988 and 1989, and again in 1990 under Jack Pardee when the Oilers kept the Steelers out of the playoffs in the season finale. The Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997 and became the Titans two years later.
Titans quarterbacks were sacked just 12 times in 2008 and 15 times in 2009, according to Steel City Insider. Roethlisberger gets sacked that many times on his way to the bathroom when he gets out of bed in the morning.
Although he has the credentials to do it if he had to, it’s not like Munchak has to clean up a complete mess. The performance of the Steelers offensive line late in the 2013 season gives him something to work with.
After being sacked an average of 42 times between 2006 and 2012 and 35 times in the first nine games of 2013, Roethlisberger was sacked just seven times in the last seven games. It’s the fewest sacks he’s absorbed over any seven-game stretch in his career. Not even fondly remembered behemoths like Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith and Jeff Hartings could protect him like that.
While Roethlisberger stayed relatively clean, rookie running back Le’Veon Bell saw more daylight late in the season. He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry for the year, but ran for better than four yards a carry in four of the last five games. He broke the 100-yard barrier for the first time with 124 yards in the Steelers’ Week 16 win at Green Bay.
The Steelers offensive line has come a long way, and Munchak can bring those guys the rest of the way.
Now he’s only a position coach, so it’s a little early to print those playoff tickets. Munchak’s not a franchise savior. But if he does what he did in Tennessee, a weakness for the last eight years will become a strength for the Steelers.