It is generally true that any NFL team in this era can only go as far as its quarterback is able to take them. In the Pittsburgh Steelers’ case, though, Ben Roethlisberger will only be able to take them as far as the offensive line is able to take him, and the running game.
The group up front looks a lot different from last season, with Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro all gone, and at least two new players—rookie Kendrick Green and veteran free agent Trai Turner—in the starting lineup. Even the line coach has changed. But head coach Mike Tomlin is seeing some positives.
“There have been two things that I’ve been really impressed with. First, their level of conditioning, individually and collectively”, he told Peter King following Saturday’s victory over the Detroit Lions. “The group’s in great shape, and that’s the catalyst for everything”.
“Lastly, [I like] their finish. I like the direction that the pile’s falling”, he continued. “I like the effort that the guys are finishing plays with. If we continue to build off of that foundation, I’m confident that we’re going to have the type of cohesion and have the type of line that we need”.
For the most part, the Steelers’ running game has been…okay so far during the preseason when it matters most. Some of that is just guys like Najee Harris, their star first-round draft pick, making some of his own plays. They’ve also gotten some quality from the likes of Kalen Ballage, and even Jaylen Samuels, as well as second-year Anthony McFarland.
Still, this group is very much a work in progress. Turner has only been with the team for under two months. Kevin Dotson and Green are not natural at their positions, the latter being a rookie. Zach Banner hasn’t even played much as he returns from a torn ACL. Chukwuma Okorafor is not really shining at left tackle.
“It’s just part of it. We were last in the league last year in running the football, so there are not a lot of places to fall”, Tomlin said about the turnover in the trenches. “We don’t live in our fear; we live in our hopes and dreams. We’re excited about this group that we’re putting together and the way that they’re working and the way that they’re coming together”.
At the end of the day, you work with the guys you’ve got. There is some potential in the line the Steelers have, but at a minimum, it is going to take some time to develop. And in the long run, it may still require a revision of the personnel involved before they can really feel good about the starting group.