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What Does New Steelers WR Coach Zach Azzanni Bring to Offense?

What does new Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni bring to the table for the offense?



Pittsburgh Steelers WR Coach Zach Azzanni
Denver Broncos wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni takes part in drills during the NFL football team's training camp Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, at the Broncos' headquarters in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new wide receivers coach after they hired former Broncos and Jets wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni on Thursday.

Azzanni, 47, comes to the Steelers from the New York Jets, where he spent the 2023 season. He has also had stops coaching wide receivers in the NFL with the Denver Broncos from 2018-22 and the Chicago Bears in 2017.

Perhaps of most significant note for Steelers fans is Azzanni’s connection to legendary Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. Azzanni was the assistant head coach and wide receivers coach at his alma mater, Central Michigan, from 2007-09, and he was instrumental in coming to campus in 2007. 

In his last six seasons as a wide receivers coach, Azzanni has only seen two 1000-yard receivers in Courtland Sutton in 2021 and Garrett Wilson this past season. The other wide receivers were largely disappointing, but since most are veterans, it’s hard to know how much of that to place on Azzanni, especially given the quarterback play they received.

But honestly, I’m not here to tell you if this is a good or bad hire. The paper sheet might say one thing, but there are so many factors for position coaches that it can become quite murky. Here’s what you will know about him, especially his long background. Not only does he have an extensive NFL background, but he came up under Urban Meyer, Butch Jones, Willie Taggart, Bret Bielema, and others in the college ranks.

He left CMU in 2010 for a job at Florida. Also, he had collegiate stops as offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky in 2011, wide receivers coach at Wisconsin in 2012, and wide receivers coach, recruiting coordinator and passing game coordinator at Tennessee from 2013-16. Azzanni was in Knoxville while Arthur Smith was a young assistant with the Tennessee Titans, and the two may have connected then. Still, Azzanni has no apparent connections to any other member of the Steelers coaching staff.

From what I can find on Azzanni, he loves to harp on blocking for his receivers. Given the condensed sets that the Steelers are using, it’s hard not to embrace the idea the receivers will have to block, and block well in the Smith offense. He wants that type of toughness and effort from his guys throughout the game. That seems to be one of his biggest traits, so it’s not hard to imagine why Azzanni would be a sought-after candidate for the Steelers with the type of system they want to run.

If you don’t play, it’s probably because you are not blocking. And Azzanni makes that known. For the Steelers, that is something that George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and others have been criticized for in the past, but will need to do in the new system. It’s up to Azzanni to get that back up to the level needed.

Outside of that, he focuses heavily on play at the line of scrimmage. Finding a press conference without him mentioning releases and defeating press coverage was tough. So, that seems like his focus within the coaching realm, too. Do you want his development pedigree? During his time at Tennessee, they produced Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, and Josh Malone, so there are some hits that he has turned into really good college receivers, and two of those guys ended up as first-round picks.

Either way, it seems that philosophically, Azzanni lines up with what Smith likes his receivers to do in the offense. Given the likelihood that a young guy is coming into the room, their development will be paramount moving forward, and it would be up to Azzanni to continue developing that acumen in that receiver.