Steelers ahead of curve in free agency as NFL makes shift in offense
The Pittsburgh Steelers have broken with tradition during NFL free agency in March, with Omar Khan as general manager and taking the reins on creating a scenario for success ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft. While it hasn’t necessarily been fan-approved, the Steelers organization has put itself ahead of the curve, especially with the signing of recent Super Bowl LVII guard Isaac Seumalo, of another shift in the league: a return to hard-pounding rushing offenses.
The 2022 season saw a resurgence in teams returning to run-heavy offenses that battered and gassed defenses across the league. With an impetus on returning to being a better run-team, spearheaded by team president Art Rooney II, the Steelers look to be on track to meet those expectations in 2023.
Seumalo is one of two interior offensive linemen signed by the Steelers in this free-agency period of the new league year. Nate Herbig, who spent last season with the New York Jets, was also signed after his original playing time in – guess where – Philadelphia.
Steelers assistant general manager Andy Weidl has been linked with the signings due to his time in the front office of the Eagles organization (2016) and his familiarity with both players, but it’s highly likely much more is involved than simply inside knowledge of the two players.
Last season, the Eagles rode their NFL-best offensive line all the way to the Super Bowl. Their Week 18 starters included Jordan Mailata (LT), Landon Dickerson (LG), Jason Kelce (C), Seumalo (RG), and Jack Driscoll (RT). Their flaw was penalties (mostly holding) as they blocked for a mobile quarterback in Jalen Hurts. Their biggest positive was in creating big holes and outside protection (especially for Hurts) for a fifth-best rushing yardage mark in the league with 2509 yards and 32 run touchdowns.
Yes, the Kansas City Chiefs – the middle of the pack with just 115.9 yards per game on the ground in 2022 – made it to the Super Bowl, too. Clyde Edwards Helare spent eight weeks on injured-reserved and was only activated before the playoff games kicked off. Jordan Franks, a backup halfback, was injured in November and went on injured-reserved for the remainder of the season and postseason. Derrick Gore played in just 11 games. Jerick McKinnon was on-again, off-again with zero starts. Ronald Jones II played in just six games. That left Isiah Pacheco as the Chiefs’ lone true running back to carry a 17-game plus playoffs load, but even he only started in 11 games last season. By necessity, Kansas City was forced to earn wins with a little fancy work from quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce, and a slew of rotating wide receivers.
Without getting into a total breakdown of the shift of NFL teams to breaking away from the high-flying, gunslinger shootouts witnessed throughout the 2000s to more smash-mouth rushing behind bigger, athletic offensive lines in this article, it is worth noting the top teams last year to utilize such a plan. The Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, and New York Giants were the top four rushing teams (total rushing yardage) last season.
A hard look at the ball carriers and offensive lines of those teams illustrated that few things are key determinators to offensive success as the quality of a team’s offensive line.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line was a shambles early in the 2022 NFL season. Sure, they had Najee Harris (in his second season) and Jaylen Warren (a rookie free agent) in their offensive backfield ready to tote the ball, but the line was so disorganized that the run game didn’t really get established effectively until late in the season. With Mason Cole and J.C. Hassenauer mainly in at center, Dan Moore, James Daniels, Kevin Dotson, and Chukwuma Okorafor were the Steelers’ primary linemen. Jesse Davis and Trenton Scott did get snaps, though, as the line tried to create some sort of cohesiveness.
After facing some of the best rushing teams in the league in a short time on their 2022 NFL schedule, it was almost like things clicked for the Steelers. The defense, who’d been poor at stopping the run stepped up. And then the offensive line gelled to end the season with 2,073 rushing yards.
With the addition of Seumalo and Herbig – both immediate “starter” quality linemen – the Steelers are more ahead of the curve than many teams in mixing into the cycle of a return to big run games among NFL offenses. Offensive line addition during the 2023 NFL Draft, especially at tackle, looks more likely. It’s a bit early to say who may or may not be expendable on the roster because it’ll depend on how much depth, and how much restructuring of free agents still in-house, happens.
Regardless, Pittsburgh looks primed to get nastier up front in their offense and give other teams a real run, pun intended, for the money in 2023.