The 2021 season has concluded for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the coaching carousel will be moving rapidly across the NFL over the next couple weeks. While the Steelers will not likely be making too many changes on the coaching staff, there are several assistants on the Steelers coaching staff who struggled in their roles this season and should be under more pressure.
On the bright side, there were several assistants who shined in their roles in 2021. We will also recognize them and congratulate them on a job well done.
The Steelers already saw one assistant depart in Adrian Klemm. It will be interesting to see if the Steelers hire in-house yet again and hire Klemm’s assistant, Chris Morgan, or go outside the building for someone else. It is unclear how hot Matt Canada’s seat is, and we do not know when Keith Butler will decide to retire, but there could certainly be a decent bit of movement on staff in the coming years.
Let’s take a look at which assistants are trending up and which ones are in need of a bounce-back season in 2022.
Alfredo Roberts — Tight Ends Coach
Roberts is not responsible for the talent Pat Freiermuth brings to the table. However, most tight ends do not produce much in year one, as the learning curve from college to the NFL is steeper than many other positions. This was not the case with Freiermuth, though, as he led all rookie tight ends with 8 touchdowns in 2021. Freiermuth also showed great development as a blocker, an aspect of his game in which he showed great potential in college but was still quite raw.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Roberts in 2021, however, was the development of Zach Gentry, a player I had been highly critical of coming out of college. Gentry not only showed improvement in the small sample size we saw of him as a pass catcher, but he was an entirely different player when it came to his blocking. He had many weaknesses coming out of Michigan, but none were bigger than his blocking ability. With the help of Roberts and the Steelers offensive coaching staff, Gentry has added more weight and refined his technique as a blocker, becoming arguably the best blocking tight end currently on the Steelers roster. Roberts has gotten more out of him than I thought anyone ever could, and he should be recognized for a job well done.
Teryl Austin — Senior Defensive Assistant/Secondary
The results in the secondary were up-and-down this season, and with Joe Haden dealing with an injury during the second half of the season, it did not make things any better. Nonetheless, I felt as if Austin did a nice job keeping a secondary together that lacked star power at the cornerback position.
The Steelers acquired Akhello Witherspoon for higher price than most expected, but after a rocky start to the season, he improved as the season went along and made several splash plays down the stretch. It is unclear as to whether or not the Steelers will bring Witherspoon back next season, but the improvement in play is a testament to Austin’s tutelage. While the jury is still out on James Pierre and Tre Norwood, the fact that both played a significant role in the defense is encouraging, considering that Norwood was only a seventh-round pick and James Pierre was an undrafted free agent.
Karl Dunbar — Defensive Line Coach
The cards were stacked against Dunbar in 2021, but he found ways to glue the defensive line together. The injury to Tyson Alualu and the season-long absence of Stephon Tuitt were both unexpected occurrences, yet we saw the development of several young defenders. Isaiah Buggs played 227 defensive snaps (37%) and saw his highest PFF score of his young career, and Chris Wormley had his best season as a pass rusher, recording 7 sacks and 8 additional quarterback hurries.
And as much as I criticized the Isaiahh Loudermilk pick last spring, Dunbar has done an excellent job developing him. His collegiate tape was terrible, and there is no other way to put it. He has not only turned Loudermilk into a valuable depth piece for the future, but the Steelers have gotten quality minutes out of him as a rookie. As a run defender, he did not get pushed off the ball as easily in the second half of the season, and he learned how to better use his length. I credit much of his development to Dunbar, who is definitely one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL.
Matt Canada — Offensive Coordinator
Canada was not given any help by the play of the offensive line, and it is important to put that into account when evaluating his performance as offensive coordinator. However, the lack of production by the offense speaks for itself, and some of the play calling certainly deserves to be questioned. Now, some of it may have been due to Ben Roethlisberger’s preferences as opposed to Matt Canada’s true offense, but assuming he is given a second season as offensive coordinator, 2022 will be telling as to what type of coordinator he can be in the NFL.
Jerry Olsavsky — Inside Linebackers Coach
Olsavsky has been the inside linebackers coach since 2015, and it is highly unlikely he is removed from his role, but the play of the inside linebackers was underwhelming for the majority of the season. Devin Bush improved over the final month of the season, but the effects of his 2020 ACL injury was evident, and he struggled for the majority of the year. While I cannot put all of Bush’s issues on Olsavsky’s shoulders, I was disappointed that we did not see a greater step of development despite the injury. Joe Schobert had his moments as well, but he seemed to regress based on his statistics compared to previous seasons. Robert Spillane also took a step back after an impressive 2020 season. I do not expect Tomlin to part ways with Olsavsky because of one down year, but 2021 was definitely not one of the better coaching jobs in Olsavsky’s career.
Danny Smith — Special Teams Coordinator
Putting all bitterness from choosing RayRay McCloud over Matthew Sexton as kick returner aside, I still have reservations as to why Danny Smith is still the special teams coordinator. Pressley Harvin III, who was just fine in the preseason when kicking freely in a competition with Jordan Berry, struggled with consistency during the 2021 season. Is it just a normal slump that many players go through? It could be, but this has become a recurring theme with Steelers punters. Maybe this is being too speculative, but it seems to me as if Harvin is being asked to do something he is not comfortable doing.
It is clear that Danny Smith has been teaching hangtime over distance, and Harvin is most definitely a distance punter. I am no expert on punters, but to the amateur eye, it looks as if Harvin is overthinking things before he kicks the ball, as kicking for hangtime is not his style of punting. To add to it, after the unfortunate passing of Harvin’s father, Corliss Waitman comes in last minute, without much time to be influenced by Danny Smith, and has a phenomenal punting performance. Many fans have pointed the finger at Pittsburgh’s punters during Smith’s tenure, but the story ends the same with each and every one, and none of those punters had a track record of being inconsistent before being influenced by Smith. It may be time to quit blaming the punters and start pointing the finger at the one coaching them.
Which assistant coaches on staff impressed you the most this season? Are any of them deserving of promotions? On the flip side, which coordinators should be on the hot seat? Be sure to share your thoughts on this and all things Pittsburgh Steelers in the comment section below!