With Max Starks' season-ending injury, the attention of the Steelers and their supporters is once again focused on Pittsburgh's offensive line. Once again it is about to be labeled the weak link of the team, and perhaps not without reasons. But let us take a minute and look at how the Steelers' O-Line has performed thus far in the season – based on very simple stats – sacks.
Over the past several years, the Steelers were at the top (or should I say – at the bottom) of the NFL's most sacked list. In 2009 Ben Roethlisberger was sacked whopping 50 times in 15 games he played (tied most in the league). In 2008 Ben was sacked 46 times (2nd in the NFL). In 2007 the number was 47 (2nd in the NFL). Throw in 3 more sacks for Byron Leftwich in 2008 and you will have 146 sacks in 3 seasons, or 3.04 sacks per game.
In 2010 the Steelers QBs were sacked just 16 times in 8 games, that is 2 times per game. That is a 33% improvement right there.
Now, the Steelers' 2010 season isn't orthodox by any means, it is usually divided into two parts – without Ben (Games 1-4) and with Ben (Games 5-8). What do we have there? Dennix Dixon and Charlie Batch who combined to play four complete games were sacked 9 times, while Ben was sacked only 7 times in the same number of games. This is unusual in itself because at least a sizeable portion of Ben's sacks is directly attributed to his tendency to hold the ball too long (which didn't go away during the suspension as clearly evidenced by his 2 fumbles in Miami), and plus, Ben is much more difficult to protect by the linemen due to his mobility and constant change of location. Plus one shouldn't forget that Dixon and, to a smaller extent, Batch were called to throw mainly short and intermediate passes, which further decreases the probability of a sack.
Furthermore, if you look at the number of passes attempted, you will see that the Dixon/Batch combo attempted 81 passes which is 28 attempts less then Ben in the same number of games (note: one would need to count QB dropbacks, not pass attempts, to be more accurate, but I think the trend will remain unchanged). Simple math says that Dixon/Batch were sacked once per 9 pass attempts, while Roethlisberger went down only once in 15.5 passes on average. This is an almost 40% difference which can only be explained by the vastly improved play of the offensive line.
This is not to say that the play of the O-line for the Steelers was great, but neither was its composition and health. Pittsburgh had Starks out, Trai Essex out, Willie Colon was placed on Injured Reserve back in July, Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott, Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster were in and out with dehydration (especially during the hot games early in the season), all this with a rookie at center.
One should also consider (and there is no need to go into the stats for this), the running game was vastly improved by the better O-line play. This is all a testament to the good coaching (including frequent rotations during games) and greater dedication by the players. For this reason I am not even close to thinking that Max Starks' loss for the season will be season-changing for the Steelers. It will be of course tougher, especially if Chris Kemoeatu is out too, but it should not prevent Pittsburgh from winning games.
P.S. This is the first post of a new member of this community, an out-of-country (or should I say – out-of-continent) Steelers fan, so don't be too hard on me if I got something wrong. And – thanks for reading.