Q&A: John Mitchell

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell sat down with Fox 970's Greg Linelli and Jim Wexell for a radio interview in which he discussed Ziggy Hood and his long learning curve, as well as assorted topics along the Steelers' defensive line.

John Mitchell, DL coach, Pittsburgh Steelers

Q: You got your lineman. Tell us about Ziggy Hood?

A: When I look at players, especially those coming out of college, there are two things that are very important to us and to me as a defensive line coach: One, can the guy run? And, two, is he physical? If they don't have those two ingredients, I know, coming to the NFL and coming to the Pittsburgh Steelers, he's not going to do them for me. Once they have those two ingredients, as a coach, I think he can get better. I think I can help him. This guy plays with his hands real well, he stays on his feet, he's physical, and he'll play 60 minutes of football for you.

Q: He seems like a bright, enthusiastic kid.

A: He's a very humble kid. He's excited about being drafted. Football's very important to him. He was a good football player at Missouri, and above that he's a good college student and all the people around him really liked him.

Q: I know you need the physical attributes, but Aaron Smith told me he's seen these guys come and go, that he can tell in the first week if they'll have the commitment to make it here. This guy has it, right?

A: From his past record, I think he does. It's very important to him. From what I know of him, he's going to fit in with the players I have. If he's going to work hard and be dedicated like Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Casey (Hampton), Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, Chris Hoke, he's a guy we can bring along slowly, and when his time comes he'll be ready to play for us.

Q: He's not the classic long Steelers defensive end, and that scheme at Missouri was nothing like the scheme here. I'm sure he didn't give you the full view of how he can become your 3-4 fit. Tell us your views on that.

A: He played tackle at Missouri and he played inside. The thing we're going to have to see him do, which I think he can, is we're going to put him outside a little further away from the ball. That's going to tell us whether he has the range to make the plays going away from him, closing down the line of scrimmage and make those types of plays. He's physical enough to play what we call the 5-technique, over the tackle, and he's physical enough to take on tight ends. This guy has great feet. We do a lot with our defensive linemen. I have no qualms about him covering a back or covering a receiver because he stays on his feet and he runs real well. So, it's going to be a little different for him for what we do. We do a lot of movement with our guys. The toughest thing for a defensive lineman coming here is we do so much there's a lot for him to learn. He'll have to be dedicated enough to stay up at nights, try to learn with me what we do. Once he learns what we do, he has the ability to do it. But like Aaron Smith says, as a coach after the first couple of weeks you can tell what direction that player's going to go in.

Q: I saw Missouri three times and he didn't seem very stout against the run. Tell me why I'm wrong.

A: They do a lot of things. We watched film on him consistently. A lot of times they brought him inside and put him in a bad position to make plays, and a lot of times he got double-teamed. And see, I don't worry about those things. When you draft a player, you're going to bring him here and teach him the things you want to teach him. I can teach him how to play a double-team; I can teach him how to use his hands. But as I said earlier, if this guy can't stay on his feet, if he doesn't run to the ball, if he's not physical, I can't teach him those things. You know, when you watch tape and people start evaluating guys, and someone says, ‘Well, this guy doesn't use his hands well.' Well, I don't know what he's been asked to do at Missouri but I know what he's going to be asked to do here. ‘He don't know how to play a double-team.' And ‘He plays high.' Those things don't bother me. Again, if he's going to run to the ball and play physical, we've got 50 percent of the battle won.

Q: He's known for his spin move. He showed that off quite a bit at the Senior Bowl and during the season. How much of that spin move are we going to see when he's in the black and gold?

A: I'm going to put an end to that spin move, because, when you spin, a lot of times you spin out of position and away from the ballcarrier. I'm going to help him get better at what he does well, but, no, when he comes here there's going to be things that I'm going to require him to do. When he gets in the room with Aaron Smith, Brett Keis, and Casey, he'll get a pretty good feel of what I want him to do. He's going to have a learning curve and it's a long learning curve. This guy's a good football player but he's not ready to play tomorrow, next week, next month, and I don't know if he's going to be ready to play next year. We're going to work with him and hope we bring him along, but we're not going to put a timetable on him.

Q: It's nice to have that time, isn't it?

A: Oh, yeah, definitely. I don't care what round you draft him in, you don't want to bring a player in and let him lose his confidence in himself. As a coach, I want him to feel by coming here we selected the right guy. We're going to teach him things that make him better and we're not going to put him on the field until we feel confident that he's ready to play.

Q: He's a heftier end than you've had. Or, he's a more athletic nose tackle than you've had. Could he go in either direction?

A: Yes, that's what we like about him also. He's very versatile. I like ends a little taller, but at 6-3 or 6-2½, he can play outside. He's played inside, so playing inside won't be a big difference for him. He's just got to use his hands. Usually, when you've got a guy 6-3 inside he has a tough time staying low, so we're happy we have a guy that size that can play end. I'm excited about Ziggy.

Q: But you wouldn't be asking him to add 20 or 30 pounds to become a full-time nose tackle some day, would you?

A: No, we're not going to ask him to play nose tackle. If we need a guy to finish a game and we lost a couple of nose tackles, here's a guy who can go in and be a stop-gap for us until next week when we can see what direction you want to go. This guy's a 300-pounder. You have to have that to play the 3-4 the way we want to play it. He has a lot of things that we like.

Q: Like a couple of years ago when you used Travis Kirschke at nose tackle?

A: Well, Travis is a good football player. He's smart and when he was in San Francisco he played nose quite a bit. It wasn't like we reached into a hat. Travis Kirschke is a good football player. He probably had his best year here last year. The year before he was hurt, and Travis isn't the type to complain because he's a professional. He's been in this league for 13 years. I've got a lot of respect for this guy and this guy has a lot of football left in him. I also want to address the fact that people say I've got a bunch of old guys. Aaron Smith is 33. You can't get around that. But he's 33 chronologically. Physically, he's not 33. You look at Brett Keisel; he's 31. But go back and look at the tape of these guys. When they got injured, they were doing the things that we asked them to do: They were running to the football. When you get good defensive linemen that run to the football, they're going to have nicks. They did not get injured, either one of them, because of diminishing abilities or skills. They got injured running to the football, which we require them to do. Now, if I had a guy who was 57 years old, or someone my age, I would worry. A 33-year-old guy and a 31-year-old guy and a 31-year-old guy, Casey Hampton, who don't have a lot of wear on their body? I'm not going to worry. Do they have chronological age on them? Yes. But these guys have a lot of football left in them.

Q: Keisel's contract is up after next year. That's something that's out of your control, but do you see a concerted effort to keep him even with the No. 1 pick behind him?

A: Players play, coaches coach, and administrators administrate. My job is to coach, so I don't get involved in that. But Keisel's a good football player. I think he's proven he can play here. Those types of guys are hard to replace. Here's something you have to look at also: When we got Aaron Smith, it was two years before he played. With Brett Keisel, it was four years before he got on the field, although he was a very good special teams player. Chris Hoke was here three years before he got on the field. My point is that Ziggy's a good football player, but he's not going to come here tomorrow and set the world on fire. I'm excited about it. We're happy with him. But we're going to have to bring him along and he's going to have that learning curve. So a guy like Brett Keisel, I think Brett Keisel has five or six years of good football in him.

Q: Considering the competition, I'm sure he'll come to camp in prime shape, too.

A: You don't worry about those guys, even Casey. He didn't come back with his weight down last year, but I think his pride was really hurt last year. He was put on PUP. Here's a guy who has been to the Pro Bowl and he still wants to show people that he's Casey Hampton the nose tackle people saw three or four years ago.

Q: He's already feisty about the weight issue.

A: He's going to get the weight down. I'm not worried about that.

Q: Well, we're into the fifth round now and that's about the time they wake you up and say, ‘Hey, Mitch, do you want anybody?'

A: That's been the track record, and there are still some good football players out there. When you play the 3-4 the way we play it, we overlook a lot of good football players. The thing that I like about Ziggy, he's an unselfish player. Any defensive lineman that we draft is not going to get the press and we're not going to ask him to get 20 sacks. We're going to ask him to keep those linebackers free, make sure that it takes five offensive linemen to block our three, and so they're not going to get the pub. We've got to have a special guy, and those guys are not out there very often because most of the defensive linemen in this league, especially ends, they think about sacks and they equate that to money in their contract down the road. That's not what you're going to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Q: So what was going through your mind when the Colts were on the clock in the first round?

A: I was keeping my fingers crossed that they'd pass on Ziggy Hood. They ended up with Fili Moala; I liked him. But things worked real well for us.

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