How Could Steelers Replace Brian Flores?
With Brian Flores departing to become the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a vacancy in their coaching staff heading into the 2023 season.
It’s not exactly clear if the Steelers feel they need to have a senior defensive assistant. The club created the job in 2019 for Teryl Austin, adding him to Keith Butler on the defensive staff.
When Butler retired last season, Austin was promoted to take his place. Several months later, when Flores could not secure a head coach or defensive coordinator position, Mike Tomlin offered him Austin’s old job.
The combination of Tomlin, Austin and Flores got the Steelers back to being a top 10 defense in 2022, so the plan seemed to work. If they want to continue it, they’ll need to find a replacement for Flores.
Who are some names out there that could fit for the Steelers this time around?
Gus Bradley, Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator
Bradley is technically still the Colts defensive coordinator, but who knows what’s going to happen when that franchise eventually decides on a head coach. Bradley being passed over twice for that job is probably not a sign that he’s held in a lot of esteem by the Indy front office.
But Bradley had a lot of success in the past with the Legion of Boom Seattle Seahawks and while that didn’t translate to success as a head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars, that’s basically the kind of coach the Steelers ought to be looking for with this role.
Bradley joined Tampa Bay in 2006, one year after Tomlin left, so they share a bunch of coaching connections, as well.
Vance Joseph, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator
Joseph is another coach that is in limbo while the team goes through an extended head coach hiring process — one that recently included Flores bailing to take the Vikings DC job.
Whoever ends up as the Cardinals head coach would be crazy not to keep Joseph, but maybe he’s soured on the place after four years.
Joseph came up as a secondary coach, where he contributed to strong units in Houston and Cincinnati, and is certainly the kind of coach that could follow in Austin and Flores’ footsteps.
Al Holcomb, Carolina Panthers assistant head coach
I had Steve Wilks on this list until he got hired by the San Francisco 49ers, but Holcomb is probably the next best thing. Holcomb was Wilks’ defensive coordinator in Arizona in 2018 and then he worked for Wilks as Carolina’s run game coordinator and assistant head coach for the last three years.
Holcomb also was with the New York Giants as a quality control coach and defensive assistant, winning a Super Bowl ring alongside current Steelers quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan. He has ties to the area as a West Virginia alum and having coached in the PSAC from 1998-2005.
Holcomb will reportedly not be retained by new head coach Frank Reich.
Josh Boyer, Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator
If the Steelers want the most literal replacement for Flores, Josh Boyer is probably the guy. Boyer came up in the New England Patriots system alongside Flores, working as a defensive assistant, defensive backs and cornerbacks coach from 2006-18 under Bill Belichick.
When Flores got the head coaching job at Miami, he took Boyer with him as defensive passing game coordinator. Flores promoted Boyer to defensive coordinator in 2020, and Miami kept him there despite firing Flores in 2022.
But Boyer was fired this January, and does not appear to be in line for another DC job. He could certainly go with Flores to Minnesota, but his skills would provide a lot of what the Steelers might be looking for in a Flores replacement, as well.
Other names: Ed Donatell, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator; John Fox, Indianapolis Colts senior defensive assistant; Jim Tomsula, Rhine Fire head coach; Rod Woodson, Vegas Vipers head coach.
There are certainly some quality candidates there. But what if the Steelers, instead of replacing Flores directly, decide to fill that position on the offensive side of the ball?
It’s something that president Art Rooney II said he would be open to, and with the team’s offense struggling in the second season under Matt Canada, and the critical development of quarterback Kenny Pickett at stake, it seems that there is probably a greater and more urgent need for such a coach on offense.
It just so happens that there are plenty of good candidates to add a senior offensive coach to the staff, as well.
Pep Hamilton, Houston Texans offensive coordinator
Pep Hamilton interviewed to be the Steelers’ offensive coordinator two years ago, when the team hired Canada instead. With the staff changeover in Houston from Lovie Smith to DeMeco Ryans, it does not appear that Hamilton will be retained in Houston.
In his two seasons as coordinator, Hamilton was saddled with Davis Mills at the quarterback position and a ragtag group of eligibles, leaving no question why the Texans had one of the worst offenses in the league.
His prior experience highlights Hamilton’s bona fides, particularly his stint as the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive coordinator for 2013-15, when he helped develop a young Andrew Luck into an NFL star.
Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator
Steelers fans need no introduction to Leftwich, who played here under Tomlin in 2008 and from 2010-12. As a coach, he came up under former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, with a long stop in Arizona before becoming the Bucs OC in 2019.
His time in Tampa included a Super Bowl title, but things went downhill fast in 2022. That coincided with the first season of Arians moving on as a head coach in favor of Todd Bowles. It also was the first year of noticeable decline for the previously ageless wonder of Tom Brady.
So it’s not surprising that Leftwich hasn’t gotten another NFL OC offer (he is apparently a candidate for the Notre Dame job), but Leftwich still brings a lot of the passing game and quarterback development skills to the table that Canada doesn’t necessarily have.
Jeff Nixon, Carolina Panthers assistant head coach
Nixon, a Rochester, Pa. Native and Penn State alum, was with the Panthers from 2020-22 as running backs coach, interim offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
His fit as a run-first coach doesn’t necessarily jive with what the Steelers might be lacking from Canada, but he was part of a dynamic college offense with Matt Rhule at Baylor and also came up under Andy Reid in Philadelphia from 2007-10.
Nixon has coached running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and on special teams, so his varied experience makes him a good fit for a staff generalist.
Nixon interviewed for, but did not get, the Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator job, and looks like he could be available to the Steelers.
Ken Whisenhunt, Penn State offensive analyst
Whisenhunt’s tenure as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator seems forever ago, but he’s still just 60 years old. He took a year off after being fired as the Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator in 2019, and spent the last two seasons working as an offensive analyst at Penn State.
That’s essentially the collegiate analogue for the role the Steelers could be looking to fill, and Whisenhunt’s extensive experience as a coordinator and head coach at the NFL level seems to fit the path of past hires.
Whisenhunt’s offenses were always passing oriented, and by dipping his toe into the college ranks the last two years, he could provide a fresh perspective on what’s been working at the college level, with the experienced eye of someone that would know how to make it work in the NFL.
Other names: Ben McAdoo, Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator; Greg Roman, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator; Justin Outten, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator.
The Steelers don’t have to add anyone to their staff, either. The position filled by Flores has only existed for a handful of years. But that would feel like a missed opportunity. It was obvious that what Flores brought to the table this year helped the Steelers. It was also obvious that working for the Steelers was an essential part of him getting another shot to run an NFL defense.
Tomlin does not have an extensive coaching tree. He prefers to work with assistants that have been there and done that instead of developing his own. But adding high-profile assistants that have already worked at higher levels on a short-term basis is a great way to tap into Tomlin’s popularity among his coaching brethren and make it into a positive for the Steelers.
Nick Saban has done the same thing at Alabama, turning the Crimson Tide’s offensive analyst position into a place where failed former head coaches and assistants stop for one year before finding greener pastures. The Steelers would be wise to use that as a model for a way to maximize their coaching staff at the NFL level.