For the 2019 season, here’s how the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting offensive line lined up in their Week One opener.
LT – Alejandro Villanueva
LG – Ramon Foster
C – Maurkice Pouncey
RG – David DeCastro
RT – Matt Feiler
Compare that to how the group just two years later is projected to look.
LT – Chukwuma Okorafor
LG – Kevin Dotson
C – BJ Finney/Kendrick Green
RG – David DeCastro
RT – Zach Banner
Night and day difference, only DeCastro remaining as the lone constant. And though most of the projected 2021 starters were on the team two years ago, they’re ascending not only in their on-field role but their off-field leadership. Zach Banner knows they have big shoes to fill, especially in the wake of Pouncey’s retirement after a borderline Hall of Fame career.
Speaking with reporters today, Banner talked about the leadership void.
“You’ll never be able to fill the gap that 53 left,” he said via a Zoom called provided by the team. “No one will. Because he’s his own guy and he was a center, right. That’s a whole different book. At the same time, it’s not almost like creating a new environment. It’s taking all the great things from it. From being here, Dave DeCastro has been here even longer. A lot of people want to say bad things about us right now and that’s ok.”
The Steelers’ offensive line is one of its biggest questions heading into the season. It’s justified in saying this group needed a facelift. And they sure got one. But it’s largely an unproven group of players. Okorafor is just a one-year starter and presumably, will flip to left tackle where he played in college. Dotson started just four games last season. Green is a rookie while Banner played three-quarters of the season opener before tearing his ACL. DeCastro, who struggled last season, is the only player with a lengthy resume.
Banner says he aims to internalize the leadership qualities of those who are no longer with the team and use it to step up and chart a new path.
“A couple of years ago, we were known as the best offensive line in the league. How do you take those things that they’ve passed on and how do you create it in your own way? That will be something that we’ll have to continue to feel out for the summer. But I think we found it and we’re working really, really hard.”
The line will look to pass protect as well as last year’s unit did. For their struggles and even understanding Ben Roethlisberger’s quick release, the team allowed as little pressure as it had even compared to when that group was in its prime. At one point last season, Roethlisberger went over 240 pass attempts without being sacked.
But run blocking was a complete disaster and the Steelers overhauled the unit both with personnel and coaching staff. It’s a brave new world for this front five. Gone are the days of lining up the same five you had the year before. This group has a lot to prove in 2021 and perhaps led by Zach Banner, have a chip on their shoulder.