The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line lost three starters from last season. It replaced its offensive line coach. This will be a team that looks very different in the trenches, even though it’s entirely possible that every single player who starts on opening day has started a game for the team before.
Chukwuma Okorafor, who has 18 starts at right tackle, projects to replace Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle. Kevin Dotson, who started four games last season, is taking over at left guard for Matt Feiler.
While rookie Kendrick Green may start at center in the retired Maurkice Pouncey’s spot, it could also be B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer, both of whom have at least four starts. And Zach Banner, who won the starting right tackle job last year but missed all but one game due to injury, is slated to return to the position, as well.
The Steelers, though, have options, contenders, and they have to balance getting the best five linemen on the field versus getting the line set as quickly as possible in order to allow them to begin to form the necessary chemistry to work as a unit. Chris Simms talked a bit about this recently for Pro Football Talk.
“Continuity is the biggest thing. It’s gonna be new guys, but like we saw last year, one of the things that hurt them is the injuries”, he said. “It was a big part of it, the fact that they had to move around people and do that type of stuff, I think that was a little of why they morphed into this, like, ‘this guy’s not used to pulling or blocking down, so let’s just err [on the side of caution] and let Ben figure it out’. I think that was the start of it”.
Last year, the Steelers had four out of five starters on the offensive line miss at least three games. Banner, of course, missed 15, but Pouncey, Feiler, and David DeCastro also all missed three apiece, which is why Dotson and Hassenauer were each able to make four starts. Even Stefen Wisniewski started in the season opener.
“You’ve got some unproven commodities on their roster to a degree. Does the rookie they drafted from Illinois in the third round, does he play and do that? He’s certainly NFL-ready”, Simms said of Green. There is also Dan Moore Jr., who could potentially vie for a tackle job.
“But that’s to me really where it stands, getting that base of attitude, here’s our core plays, and let’s find the right mix of the five to where it’s our best five and they’re all playing in the position they’re comfortable in”, he continued. “Then you can really build something off of a run game, and you start to run plays where you go, ‘the defense knows what we’re running, and they still can’t stop it’. And that’s the good running teams that I’ve been a part of”.
While the running game is a priority, of course, they must also continue to pass protect efficiently, and better than last season. Ben Roethlisberger’s quick time-to-throw had a lot to do with their low sack total, but they need to give him more time to hold onto the ball this year if it is best for the play.