The Pessimist’s Take: O-Line Staying Healthy

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the pessimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Will the offensive line manage to stay healthy during the 2016 season?

It is true that the Steelers’ offensive line performed as well in pass protection as they have in about a decade or so. It is also true that three of their five starting offensive linemen managed to stay healthy and on the field for nearly every relevant snap of the season.

But it is also true that two of their five starters did not, with Maurkice Pouncey of course suffering an Achiles injury in the preseason from which he was unable to return, and Kelvin Beachum suffering a torn ACL after six games.

That has tended to be a theme lately. While Pouncey and Beachum stayed healthy in 2014—in fact, neither missed a single relevant snap—Marcus Gilbert missed four games due to injury, while Ramon Foster missed two.

Pouncey of course missed all of 2013, while Gilbert played through much of the year injured. DeCastro and Beachum also spent time injured. The Steelers needed to cobble together three different players just to man the right tackle position in 2012.

The further we go back, the more it becomes apparent that injuries have been a feature, rather than a defect, of the Steelers’ offensive line. I say that hyperbolically, of course, but it is to serve the purpose of pointing out that Pittsburgh has simply had to live with more than its fair share of health concerns here, and that it would be hard to predict it suddenly changing.

For one thing, we still need to see Pouncey get back on the field in the first place. He has now had two major injuries over the course of the past three years, and it is hard to imagine that not taking some sort of toll. At the very least, that is a lot of down time and recovery time over a three-year period. He has only played a season’s worth of games in the past three years.

Moreover, even if Alejandro Villanueva does win the starting left tackle job, having him in the starting lineup as a feature will be something new for the line to adjust to, and adjustments have tended to lead to injuries.

When Villanueva entered the lineup last year, it was a sort of a shock to the line, and the Steelers just tried to keep him afloat for the most part. This time around, he will be ‘the guy’, which will mean more planning and more responsibility, with more assignments, and perhaps more opportunities to make mistakes, which is more opportunity for injury.

History suggests, either way, that it is strongly likely that the Steelers will be fielding at least a couple of different starting lineups along the offensive line this season. It will then be a matter of managing and playing through it.

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