Do The Steelers Have A Super Bowl Caliber O-Line?

After the recent events the past weekend with David DeCastro’s unexpected release and the subsequent signing of FA G Trai Turner to seemingly fill his role at RG for the 2021 season, the assumption around the league that the Steelers are experiencing an end of an era of stellar offensive line play up front, having lost long-time starters Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert all in the past two years. While I am in complete agreement that the offensive line will be in a total transition in 2021 as well as in the near future, I have to disagree to a point to think that the sky is falling on Pittsburgh’s hopes of making a playoff run with the current players they have in the OL room.

While having great offensive line play is often referred to as a necessity to make a deep playoff run and win a Super Bowl, I wanted to go back and see exactly what Pittsburgh’s offensive lines looked like in their last three Super Bowl appearances with QB Ben Roethlisberger under center.

2005 Super Bowl XL Starting Offensive Line:

LT Marvel Smith
LG Alan Faneca
C Jeff Hartings
RG Kendall Simmons
RT Max Starks

2005 Offensive Rankings:

Total Yards: 15th
First Downs: 17th
Passing Yards: 24th
Net Yards/Passing Attempt: 2nd
Rushing Yards: 5th
Yards Per Carry: 12th

2008 Super Bowl XLIII Starting Offensive Line:

LT Max Starks
LG Chris Kemoeatu
C Justin Hartwig
RG Darnell Stapleton
RT Willie Colon

2008 Offensive Rankings:

Total Yards: 22nd
First Downs: 20th
Passing Yards: 17th
Net Yards/Passing Attempt: 20th
Rushing Yards: 23rd
Yards Per Carry: 29th

2010 Super Bowl XLV Starting Offensive Line:

LT Jonathan Scott
LG Chris Kemoeatu
C Doug Legursky
RG Ramon Foster
RT Flozell Adams

2010 Offensive Rankings:

Total Yards: 14th
First Downs: 20th
Passing Yards: 14th
Net Yards/Passing Attempt: 5th
Rushing Yards: 11th
Yards Per Carry: 18th

As we can see from the study above, the 2005 group was by far the most heralded and accomplished, joined by an elite defense to help support a 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger in attaining a Super Bowl Championship. The offensive line was especially effective in the ground game, ranking Top-5 in the NFL in rushing yards. It should be noted that Pittsburgh wanted to limit the amount of exposure Ben had throwing the football at the time in his second season and relied on controlling the clock with the ground game and their defense to win games.

The 2008 squad looks a little different. Injuries forced Stapleton into the starting lineup for Trai Essex, but the OL unit definitively didn’t match the 2005 group.  They ranked middle of the league in rushing and passing yards, having a low net yards per passing attempt as the great Dave Bryan would like to point out and a terrible yards-per-carry average on the ground. The offense was fueled by big splash plays buy Santonio Holmes and Ben creating on extended plays, not having the ground game pick up until the way end of the season.

The 2010 group brings back memories of the dark days of Pittsburgh’s offensive line play before the heavy investment up front. Pittsburgh had invested in building up the OL by selecting Pouncey in the first round, but he, Max Starks, Willie Colon, and Trai Essex all suffered injuries during the season, leading to a beat-up unit of backup players and guys past their prime being thrown out there to protect Ben and generate a push upfront in the most important game of the year. Despite the turmoil this group dealt with, they still were near the middle of the league in nearly every statistical category while high a high net yards per passing attempt.

As we sit here today near the end of June, most fans would expect the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line to go as follows:

LT Chukwuma Okorafor
LG Kevin Dotson
C Kendrick Green/B.J. Finney
RG Trai Turner
RT Zach Banner

While this group doesn’t give you the warm, fuzzy feeling inside like the 2005 group did or the group that together for a majority of the 2010’s, I would argue that there isn’t much difference from this group compared to the 2008 and 2010 units that ended up playing in the Super Bowl. Obviously, the defenses with those teams were tops in the league and Ben was more mobile back then and could create out of structure more than today.

However, while the defense will likely take a step back in 2021, you should expect this unit to be near the tops in the league with the players they have returning. Also, the skill positions may be some of the deepest Ben has ever played with, having weapons all over in the passing game including Diontae Johnson, Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris who should be able to contribute in the passing game as well as help give the team an identity in the ground game.

All told, this unit will have to come together over the offseason and during training camp to gel as a group in order to properly protect Roethlisberger, but there isn’t any way this unit can finish worse than last year in the running game where they were dead last in the league, even after the loss of DeCastro. While this unit may not inspire confidence in the national media and other analysts around the league, it shouldn’t be considered the factor that ends Pittsburgh’s title hopes before they begin.

Just look at what happened in the Super Bowl last year with the Chiefs having a mangled unit and got into the big game, having Patrick Mahomes run for his life all night. Should the defense continue to be a top-tier unit in the league, a couple of skill position guys make a leap forward with another year of development, and Ben continue to progress being another year removed from his elbow surgery, I do think this team will have the chance to still compete for the AFC North and make it into the playoffs to attempt another run.

How do you think this offensive line for 2021 compares to past units that played in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl appearances? Do you think the rest of the team can help propel the team forward, or that the OL group will be the backbreaker of any potential playoff run? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below and thanks again for reading!

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