Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on pace to take the second-most sacks of his professional career in 2014, having been sacked 15 times thus far through five games at an average of three sacks per game.
So how in the world could anybody possibly be trying to claim that the pass protection is actually better this year than it has been? After all, Roethlisberger was only sacked seven times during the last seven games of the 2013 season.
Quite frankly, while Marcus Gilbert may have struggled through the first two games, most of the blame for the number of sacks taken this year can go to Roethlisberger himself.
The reason his sack numbers declined so drastically from the first half of last season to the second was because he adjusted his style of play.
After taking 35 sacks in the first nine games of the year, Roethlisberger got the ball out much quicker on average and was far more willing to check down to his backs and tight ends when he had nothing open down the field.
That hasn’t been the case so far during this season, and one need only take a look at the Steelers’ last game against the Jacksonville Jaguars for a review. He took four sacks during that game, losing a fumble on one of them, when all four could have been avoided.
In truth, on both an individual and collective level, the offensive line has indeed been better in pass protection. The biggest difference has been Gilbert’s improvement over on the right side, though Maurkice Pouncey’s return has also had a significant impact.
It’s allowing the Steelers to have a top five offensive attack, as one of only four teams in the league averaging over 400 yards per game. Roethlisberger himself is averaging close to 275 yards through the air per game.
But the Steelers also have a top 10 running attack, or a top five running attack if you consider average yards per play. Both Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are averaging in excess of five yards per carry this year.
While much of their individual performances as ball carriers can be attributed to their own skills, of course, there’s little question that the offensive line has been blocking for the run game considerably better than last year.
Pouncey’s return has been the main difference in that area. The Steelers are taking advantage of his mobility by breaking out the fold blocks to get him on the move. Bell’s longest run of the last game came on just such a play.
But Mike Munchak has had all of his linemen moving in some form or fashion, including both tackles. It’s added further versatility and unpredictability to the offense, and it’s been paying dividends.
If there’s one area in which the line still needs to see improvement, though, it would be in terms of drawing penalties. All five starting linemen have been penalized at least one time. Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum lead the way with four each.
Even Pro Football Focus has taken notice of the improved line play, ranking the Steelers’ line fourth-best in the league through five weeks. Take that for what it’s worth. Just know better than to simply look at the sack numbers and say the offensive line isn’t doing its job.