No matter how objective you try to be, there is almost inevitably going to be some level of subjectivity in evaluation when it comes to something like sports. While I think that more advanced statistical analyses that we have seen emerging over the course of the past decade are illuminating and informative, they only color rather than run the discussion.
Still, I think it’s worth exploring what they have to offer, and we recently saw yet another attempt to quantify offensive line play through largely ‘objective’ measures in an article on the league’s website by Matt Harmon, which uses their ‘Next Gen Stats’ to create a list of the top 10 lines in 2017.
Somewhat to my surprise, the Pittsburgh Steelers only came in at number eight in the list, though the analysis is built upon two very specific metrics, which we should talk about first before going on.
The first metric is total pressures, and they narrowly define a pressure as a defender getting within two yards of a passer at or before the release of a pass. The second measurement that they use is what they are calling “yards gained before close”, as in before a defender closes on a ball-carrier, which is defined as being within a yard.
With these narrow parameters set, the Steelers ended up ranking 10th in total pressures allowed with 180 on the season, while they ranked 11th in yards gained before close at .35 yards. The New Orleans Saints ranked first in both categories with 137 pressures and .87 yards gained before close, respectively.
Harmon writes of the Pittsburgh’s offensive line, “the Steelers’ offensive prowess starts up front, as both their run- and pass-blocking units were among the 11 best groups in the NFL. The excellent trio of Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro has played together for the better part of three years, and the chemistry shows”. All three of them made the Pro Bowl in 2017.
“The group deserves a wealth of credit for adapting its blocking to fit the unique running style of Le’Veon Bell”, he goes on to add. “The All-Pro back’s world-renowned patience makes him more challenging to block for than most, but Pittsburgh’s group executes the assignment to perfection. The Steelers’ O-line also does its part to keep Ben Roethlisberger clean, as the Pro Bowl passer was under pressure on just 21.7 percent of his dropbacks”.
It’s worth adding that Bell’s running style very likely contributes to the “yards gained after close”. It should also be acknowledged that the Steelers had the sixth-most pass attempts in the NFL during the 2017 season, so pure pressure numbers would be projected to be higher than teams with fewer attempts. Only one of the other teams on the list were in the top 10 in pass attempts.
The Steelers know full well how important their offensive line is to them, which is why they gave long-term extensions to four of their starters, while their other starter is on his third contract. They keep Roethlisberger upright and happy. They are among the best at what they do.