When the Steelers hired Karl Dunbar as defensive line coach before the 2018 season, they weren’t just hiring a former NFL player and longtime assistant to replace legendary line coach John Mitchell.
Dunbar played for the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals and coaches for the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills and certainly knows his way around the NFL.
He also has Pittsburgh connections, having served under Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin when Tomlin was the defensive coordinator in Minnesota in 2006 and was drafted by the team back in 1990.
But the additional draw to Dunbar was his connection to one of the top collegiate programs in the country. In the two seasons he spent out of the NFL before coming to Pittsburgh, Dunbar was the defensive line coach under Nick Saban at Alabama.
A year ago, the Steelers chose defensive tackle Joshua Frazier in the seventh round out of Alabama — one of Dunbar’s former proteges. Frazier didn’t make the team, spent 2018 on the Detroit Lions’ practice squad and spent this spring playing for the Birmingham Iron in the AAF before suffering a season-ending injury.
This spring, the Steelers are trying once again to forge an Alabama connection. The team reached out in free agency and landed former Crimson Tide linebacker Mark Barron and in the sixth round of this year’s draft, selected another ‘Bama defensive lineman in 6-foot-5, 285-pound end Isaiah Buggs.
Buggs, like Dunbar, is from Louisiana, and the two forged a relationship from the very start, when Dunbar was recruiting him to join the Tide coming out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
“Most definitely,” Buggs said during his introductory conference call. “The connection we had, the truth of him buying in on me and me buying in on him, just a great opportunity.”
Now, they’ll get a chance to re-kindle that relationship at the highest level.
“He’s a great coach,” Buggs said. “He’s taught me everything I know to the ins and outs. Great leader, and I’m just ready to go to work for him again. … He knows I’m a hard worker. He knows I’m willing to do anything and everything to get the job done. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Dunbar said Buggs can play both positions on the line and that the Steelers were surprised he was still available in the sixth round.
“I think he was a good pass rusher over the offensive guard,” Dunbar said. “So, that was the thing we really liked about him. … A guy who can play the 4i (technique), and a guy where we go to sub, which we do a lot of, he can get over the guard and the center and be a productive player.”
A 4i technique means the player is lining up to the inside shoulder of a tackle, shading toward the gap between the tackle and guard, which is where the Steelers play their defensive ends in their base defense.
When they move into a sub package, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt move down the line into a three and a one technique, off the outside shoulder of the center and guard.
So Dunbar thinks Buggs is a player that is talented and versatile enough to handle the exact same role as the Steelers two every-down players on the line. That’s an import factor for a backup player, and with just a couple of experienced players ahead of him in Tyson Alualu ad Dan McCullers, Buggs’ versatility has given him an inside track on a roster spot.