The Steelers should follow the lead of their offensive line
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Ramon Foster is one of the Steelers' five returning starters on the offensive line.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Questions abound about the skill position players on the Steelers offense. Will Martavis Bryant be reinstated and return to his 2015 form after a year out of football? Will Le’Veon Bell be able to stay healthy and out of trouble for an entire season? Will Ladarius Green return after a season derailed by concussions?
Many of those questions will remain unanswered as the offseason marches forward, but if there is one position group where the Steelers don’t have any questions it’s the offensive line.
The Steelers had one of the best, if not the best, offensive line in the NFL last season. They gave up only 21 sacks and by season’s end had the most dominant running game in the league as evidenced by the record-setting performances Bell put forth in playoff games against the Dolphins and Chiefs.
When a team invests as heavily in offensive linemen as the Steelers have in the past six years, this type of performance is expected. The Steelers have two first-round picks and a second-round pick anchoring their line while two undrafted free agents have far exceeded expectations.
Center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro have earned All-Pro honors after being selected in the first round in 2010 and 2012. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, selected in the second round in 2011, is one of the more underrated tackles in the NFL.
The left side of the line doesn’t have the pedigree of the right, but Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva have made the most of their opportunities after entering the league as undrafted players.
Foster, who signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2009, had his best season at age 30 and Villanueva hit his stride in his second year. Foster was the only Steelers lineman without a holding penalty all season.
The Steelers have developed offensive linemen well in recent years, but the reason it all came together was health, something the Steelers line never takes for granted.
The starting five linemen missed only five games due to injuries, with Gilbert missing three and Foster two.
Contrast that to 2015 when the Steelers had to play without Pouncey for the entire season and left tackle Kelvin Beachum for 10 games after he sustained a season-ending injury.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then the Steelers gave up 12 fewer sacks and averaged five more rushing yards per game. They gave up the second-fewest sacks in the league and helped Bell rush for 1,172 yards over an eight-game stretch spanning his final six regular-season games and the first two playoff games. That’s an average of 146.5 yards per game and includes setting the franchise record for rushing yards in a playoff game in consecutive weeks.
The best part for the Steelers is the continuity should continue. All five starters are under contract for next season with four of the five signed through at least the 2019 season.
With that kind of continuity the Steelers should take advantage and tailor their offense around the line and the running game from the start of next season. Establish the running game and let quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is 35, operate the way he did early in his career, when he thrived off play-action.
The Steelers have to find a way to play to the line’s strengths for an entire 16-game season. Far too often in recent years we’ve heard how the offense has had to find its identity during the season. That was the case last year when the Steelers fell in love with the passing game early before riding Bell and the line to a seven-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
With everyone back in the fold the Steelers shouldn’t have to find their 2017 identity. There will be temptation to fall in love with the passing game again if Bryant returns, but the Steelers shouldn’t need to be reminded their playoff run was keyed by Bell.
The Steelers can and should throw to Bryant and All-Pro Antonio Brown, but the kind of pass-run inequity that occurred early in 2016 played a big role in the Steelers starting the season with five losses in their first nine games.
The Steelers threw 65.3 percent of the time through the first nine games of the season, the third-most passing attempts in the NFL at the time.
Over the final seven regular-season games, all victories, the Steelers pass-run ratio was 53 percent. Dallas, the team with the lowest pass-run ratio in the NFL at 51.3 percent, earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, with Tom Brady at quarterback, was 27th at 56.4 percent.
The Steelers can win with a dominant running game, too. And if Roethlisberger needs to be convinced, all the Steelers have to do is point out what Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway did in his final two seasons. He won two Super Bowls with Terrell Davis playing the starring role before riding off into the sunset.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
HOW THEY WERE BUILT
Marcus Gilbert Position: right tackle Year acquired: 2011 draft, second round School: Florida Signed through: 2019
David DeCastro Position: right guard Year acquired: 2012 draft, first round School: Stanford Signed through: 2021
Maurkice Pouncey Position: center Year acquired: 2010 draft, first round School: Florida Signed through: 2019
Ramon Foster Position: left guard Year acquired: 2009, undrafted free agent School: Tennessee Signed through: 2018
Alejandro Villanueva Position: left tackle Year acquired: 2014 free agent School: Army Signed through: Exclusive rights free agent
Cody Wallace Position: center/guard Year acquired: 2013 free agent School: Texas A&M Signed through: UFA
Chris Hubbard Position: guard/tackle Year acquired: 2014, undrafted free agent School: UAB Signed through: RFA
Jerald Hawkins Position: tackle Year acquired: 2016 draft, fourth round School: LSU Signed through: 2019
B.J. Finney Position: center/guard Year acquired: 2015, undrafted free agent School: Kansas State Signed through: Exclusive rights free agent
Brian Mihalik Position: tackle Year acquired: 2016, free agent School: Boston College Signed through: 2018
TOP OFFENSIVE LINE PROSPECTS (as rated by nfldraftscout.com)
1. Pat Elfein, Ohio State Sr. 2. Ethan Pocic, LSU Sr. 3. Tyler Orlosky, WVU Sr. 4. Kyle Fuller, Baylor Sr. 5. John Toth, Kentucky Sr.
1. F. Lamp, W. Kentucky Sr. 2. Dan Feeney, Indiana Sr. 3. Dion Dawkins, Temple Sr. 4. Dorian Johnson, Pitt Sr. 5. Isaac Asiata, Utah Sr.
1. R. Ramczyk, Wisconsin Jr. 2. Garrett Bolles, Utah Jr. 3. C. Robinson, Alabama Jr. 4. T. Moton, W. Michigan Sr. 5. R. Johnson, Florida St. Jr.
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