Reasons why fans shouldn’t be too worried about the Steelers offensive line
The Steelers offensive line. A polarizing collection of words if there ever was one over the last two seasons in Pittsburgh – a town known for road-grading, imposing of their will linemen was whittled down to mortal status seemingly overnight.
Yet, the decline didn’t happen overnight, nor will it’s rebuild to glory.
Back at the beginning of the last decade, the Steelers spent a number of high picks on their line to protect their investment behind it: QB Ben Roethlisberger. First round picks were used on C Maurkice Pouncey and G David DeCastro. Other high picks were used on T Marcus Gilbert, as well as T Mike Adams (who didn’t pan out).
Coincidentally, high picks weren’t always necessary as a number of unheralded, and mostly undrafted players came through the ranks to secure the Steelers line.
The first of those was undrafted G Ramon Foster, who fought his way to starting 145 games on the left side in 11 seasons.
Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round pick, became the team’s left tackle, starting 39 games in four seasons. He would be replaced, out of necessity, by Alejandro Villanueva – another undrafted player who converted to playing offensive line from being a defensive end.
Villanueva would start 90 games for the Steelers despite no prior experience before Beachum went on IR.
Matt Feiler was yet another undrafted prospect, out of tiny Bloomsburg College, who would ascend to starting roles at left guard and right tackle over the years, with 40 starts.
Most of the above players were all solid for some time, but a combination of age and injuries hit, seeing Gilbert traded first, then Foster retiring, before Pouncey, Villanueva, and DeCastro’s departures in the last few months.
Fans would have reason to be concerned if the Steelers offensive line had been playing up to their previous standard. Unfortunately, they had not.
Most critics of the Steelers offense as of late like to point at former offensive line coach Mike Munchak for the team’s success along the trenches. While I’ll give Munchak his due respect, the Steelers already had most of the aforementioned talent on the roster prior to his arrival in 2014 – with Pouncey and DeCastro already ascending to Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors.
Foster and Gilbert were also entrenched as starters, while Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler arguably became the byproducts of Munch’s “success”, which includes the following rushing game ranks (in yards) after each season:
- 2018: 31
- 2017: 20
- 2016: 14
- 2015: 16
- 2014: 16
As you can see, Mike Munchak wasn’t solely responsible for the Steelers success, nor their decline in the run game. Rather, former offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner can squarely be the scapegoat, as the Steelers would finish 31 (2018), 29 (2019), and 32 (2020) in rushing during his tenure.
The Steelers parted ways with Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett this offseason, replacing them with Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm accordingly. That change alone should spark something in the run game, but the personnel on the field also needed an overall.
Everyone who’s willing to admit so, knew the Steelers had a bad line last season. They also had a porous line at times in 2019, a tumultuous season that saw injuries and inconsistency too – as well as suspect play calling.
That’s why I’m not in panic mode, at least not yet. Everyone knew the Steelers would have to make some changes, but few have paid attention to those changes already in progress.
- Chukwuma Okorafor was drafted three years ago.
- Zach Banner was being trialed (and cheered) as the tackle-eligible receiver on the field.
- B.J. Finney was groomed as for those players he admirably filled in for: Pouncey at center and Foster at left guard.
- Kevin Dotson also flashed a pedigree to be a starter in 2020.
Now each of these players gets their opportunity this upcoming season, but that wasn’t enough. The Steelers also invested draft picks into their offensive line makeover.
Pittsburgh added third round choice Kendrick Green, a nasty, pulling guard who fits the mold of the center position the Steelers would like him to takeover from Pouncey.
Dan Moore Jr., a tackle being groomed to play either side, wouldn’t have been around in the fourth round if it were any other year’s draft – a testament to how the pandemic affected each team’s scouting.
He fell right into the Steelers lap.
The mix makes for an intriguing training camp before you even consider the quick decision to sign Trai Turner hours after DeCastro’s release. Turner was a five-time Pro Bowl guard in six seasons with Carolina, spending an abbreviated year with the Chargers in 2020.
With 89 career starts, Turner instantly jumps to the front of the line (pun intended) as a favorite to start at his natural right guard position.
A healthy DeCastro would’ve made a huge difference – as an elite player. However, an unhealthy DeCastro, as he was in 2020, is replaceable and upgradable.
David DeCastro 2020 ranks among qualifying guards
Pass block win rate: 43/70
Run block win rate: 37/67
(ESPN / Next Gen Stats) https://t.co/LS5Al53eIv
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) June 24, 2021
With the guards locked down, the focus turns to the tackles, both of whom were in a battle of “two dogs, one bone” in 2020. Head coach Mike Tomlin felt he had a “1A” and “1B” at the position between Banner and Okorafor.
Now they both get to be a starter.
Okorafor moves over to left tackle – a spot where Villanueva struggled mightily in 2020. Pro Football Focus ranked Villanueva 28th at his position, while Okorafor gave up the same amount of sacks as “Big Al” (3).
As long as Okorafor isn’t worse than Villanueva was, that spot on the line will improve. (Ditto for Zach Banner playing in Okorafor’s right tackle spot.)
Then there’s the question of center. Have the Steelers already settled on Green as their guy? Or will Finney compete for the starting role vacated by Pouncey?
Pouncey should be up for Hall of Fame consideration – one in a long line of Steelers dating back to Mike Webster and Dermonti Dawson (who also converted from guard to center, by the way). I won’t say that Green is a sure thing yet, but what if he is?
So long as Green doesn’t snap the ball over Big Ben’s head, or become a huge liability giving up holes in the run or pass game, I’ll take it.
What all of these calculated risks amount to is a change from last season’s failures on offense. Drop in new line coach Adrian Klemm and the intensity he’s bringing with his promotion, and Pittsburgh’s offensive line doesn’t resemble the failed one from last season whatsoever… at least not at this time.
The least I can say to anyone is that this group is younger, and perhaps hungrier. They do have big shoes to fill with Pouncey’s retirement and DeCastro’s release – but we also have to be realistic and understand that those players weren’t the same last year as they were in their primes either.
We’ll be watching anxiously over the next few months as training camp and potential moves shape what the offensive line will look like.
That should give the Steelers a bit of an edge overall. I didn’t mention the rookie Moore as an X-factor, nor the additions of Joe Haeg or Rashawn Coward, both veterans with various starting experience, who are on the roster and penciled into reserve roles to provide depth.
The future of the Steelers offensive line doesn’t seem as bleak as some have made it out to be. With Green at center, Turner, Dotson, and Finney at guard, and Banner and Okorafor at tackle, they’re a no frills, no-name group that has a lot to prove.
That sounds a lot like the Steelers last won a Super Bowl with other unsung linemen as their starters: Max Starks, Justin Hartwig, Chris Kemeatou, Willie Colon and Darnell Stapleton. They were far from proven, household names (with Kemeatou replacing the great Alan Faneca) as they beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl 43.
For now, I’m positive that the current iteration of the Steelers offensive line will not be the mainstay for the next decade either. The team will continue to add, as they did over a three-year period with Pouncey, Gilbert and DeCastro.
But for the time being, the future isn’t as bleak as some have portrayed it to be.