My first installment of this series on the 2015 PIttsburgh Steelers defense explored the role of Dick LeBeau in the decline of the Steelers defense and potential for improvement under his protégé and successor Keith Butler. While the defensive coordinator certainly has a huge impact on the success of a team's defense, there is other personnel involved as well: namely position coaches and players. If it were solely up to the coordinators, the two opponents could just do rock, paper, scissors or thumb wrestling to determine the victor. Clearly that is not what we fans love to watch on Sundays, so it would be remiss not to discuss some of the people closer to the action and explore the issue of injuries.
I have already discussed my take on d-back's coach Carnell Lake. Between injured, old, and inexperienced players, Lake has had his work cut out for him. In many ways, this upcoming season will determine Lake's aptitude and competence. Can he help Gerod Holliman learn to tackle? Will he be able to prepare Senquez Golson for meaningful NFL play? What can he get out of Cortez Allen and Mike Mitchell if they are both healthy? (My take is that Allen & Mitchell sounds more like a steakhouse or men's clothier than the dynamic duo of the secondary, but we will see). The secondary needs quality coaching and technique work if they are going to be an asset to the Steelers D. Too many of the young players have glaring deficiencies and aren't quite ready for prime time. Lake needs to step up.
Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter were assistants under LeBeau in 2014, but have since been promoted to inside and outside linebackers coaches respectively. Jerry Olsavsky has been with the team for five years. A former Steelers linebacker and PITT graduate, Olsavsky's job with the Steelers is his first pro football coaching gig. Porter coached his first season in 2014, and is known for his intensity and passion for the game. (And, as we know, his intensity once included a rather violent altercation with Bengal's LT Levi Jones in a Vegas casino.) There is no reason to assume that Starsky and Hutch of the linebackers -- minus the Ford Gran Torino, unless there is an awesome story about these guys waiting to be uncovered-- won't be able to deliver. Similar to the case of Lake, certain aspects of the defense's success hinge on these two. Even the most elite of athletes do not develop in a vacuum. Butler has moved up to the DC position, and will still be in the picture as well.
An often overlooked member of the coaching staff is strength and conditioning coach Garrett "Who??" Giemont. A Mike Tomlin hire, Giemont has been in his role since January 2007 and has over 30 years of experience in MLB and the NFL. Why mention a conditioning coach? Strength and conditioning are key components of an athlete's ability to perform at peak levels and avoid injury. Sure, not all injuries are related to strength and conditioning. If Ndamukong Suh stomps on your arm, for example, that's going to hurt no matter what. Likewise, if Reggie Nelson dives into your knees with a maneuver he clearly learned from Tonya Harding, it probably has more to do with luck than conditioning if you escape unscathed. (Seriously, what a dirty play that was!)
Nonetheless, Giemont's department does play a role in the prevention of non-contact injuries. Ever seen a player suffer a season-ending injury while celebrating a play? If not, Google Steven Tulloch or Lamarr Houston. Those are non-contact injuries. Such injuries are on the rise—not necessarily injury-by-celebration, but injuries that do not occur during the course of a violent play. Between 1997 and 2002 there were 31 Achilles tendon ruptures in the NFL. There were nine such injuries in the 2010 preseason alone. All manner of injuries have been steadily increasing during the past decade.
When new players arrive to the team out of college, one common deficiency is size. Adding muscle mass and strength too quickly can make athletes vulnerable to all manner of injuries. A relatively recent study showed that players whose positions require strength and size (such as linemen) are more likely to use PEDs and suffer from non-contact joint injuries. Thirty-one percent of retired NFL players who used steroids reported elbow injuries compared to only 17% of non-steroid users. I am not suggesting that members of the Steelers defense use PEDs. What I am pointing out is that players are more vulnerable to injury after they have experienced a sudden increase in muscle mass. The more mass a player has to support, the more stress there is on his joints. The same mass that is necessary to excel at their position, can also put dangerous strain on ligaments and cartilage. Studying a player's neuromuscular system, evaluating his coordination, and monitoring his alignment are all critical aspects of non-contact injury prevention. Oftentimes this falls under the purview of the strength and conditioning department.
We can't overstate the importance of a competent and effective strength and conditioning coach. More often than not, injuries are viewed as the result of unfortunate mishaps on the playing field or old age. Many injuries, however, are due to fatigue, increase in muscle mass, and other factors that can be controlled and manipulated by strength and conditioning coaches. Given the frequency with which fans complain about injuries and blame them for our team's poor performance, doesn't it make sense to put a face to Injury (with a capital I)? Giemont is that face, and I am wondering if he is the right man for the job.
Most discussions of performance are limited to players, and sometimes position coaches and coordinators. Strength and conditioning is a critical element of a team's success, and it is a component that merits more attention. Up tomorrow, the people who usually take the blame for poor performance and get the credit for victories: the players.