COVER STORY: Steelers offensive line too big to fail

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Steelers have made heavy investments in highly touted prospects in recent years. For the sake of the immediate future, those investments in their offensive line need to pay dividends. The five most important guys on the Steelers are the five up front.

With each passing hit on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Steeler Nation clamored for help on the offensive line.

The Steelers responded.

NFL Commissioner and first round draft announcer Roger Goodell confirmed right guard David DeCastro would be heading, surprisingly, to the Steelers with the 24th pick in the 2012 draft. Steelers Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson announced offensive tackle Mike Adams would join him as the team's second round pick.

Two years earlier, it was center Maurkice Pouncey getting swooped upon by the Steelers with the 18th overall pick. A round later, the Steelers pounced on his collegiate teammate Marcus Gilbert.

Two drafts, four offensive linemen, all of whom head into the 2013 season under the age of 25 with expectations exceeding even their high draft positions.

It will be the youngest Steelers starting offensive line in over 50 years.

Steeler Nation did its time with the Jonathan Scotts and the Doug Legurskys over the last four years. It has said "fare thee well" to longtime veteran Max Starks and Willie Colon. Former undrafted free agent Ramon Foster scored an extension this offseason, giving the Steelers a unique blend of youth and experience.

And it's time for Pittsburgh's offensive line to take its place among the best units in the NFL.

The same argument could have been made last year, when the rookie DeCastro was supposed to start at right guard. A knee injury in the Steelers' third preseason game brought out the Steelers' first-ever Injured Reserve placement with the intent to return. That return did not come until Week 15, when DeCastro made his first long-awaited start.

Missing time was the norm.

The Colon Experiment at left guard ended the same as his otherwise-outstanding career at right tackle had ended; with an injury. Pouncey spent some time at left guard, and Adams took snaps at right tackle. Both missed some time with injury (Pouncey just one game but Adams went down in the Steelers' Week 12 loss to Cleveland and didn't return all year). Gilbert injured his ankle early in the Steelers' Week 7 win against Cincinnati, and didn't play again the rest of the year.

The investment of offensive linemen - the future foundation on which the franchise frames its future - provided very few dividends. In fact, despite throwing out 15 different combinations of offensive linemen during the season, the future ensemble of Gilbert, Foster, Pouncey, DeCastro and Adams did not take one snap in that order last season.

The nine offensive linemen the Steelers had on their active roster last year produces over 3 million combinations of five players they could put on the field. If these five stay healthy - something that's extremely rare but indicative of success with any team - the Steelers can realize the dividends they've long been planning on.

Protecting their quarterback comes not just in pass pro. Quarterbacks are rarely hit on handoffs.

The Steelers hedged their bets on their offensive line in a way with the second round selection of Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell. A deceptively elusive running back from Michigan State, Bell hasn't run behind a line with this much talent. In fact, with the Spartans, he ran to what ended up being a close equivalent to the Steelers' 26th-ranked rushing game.

He could be the perfect compliment to the inconsistent blocking Steelers' running backs have received the last two seasons. He's used to one of his job descriptions being the culinary art of creating chicken salad out of just chicken excrement for ingredients.

It's tantalizing to think about what a young, uber-athletic offensive line can create for a young, powerful and nimble runner. Perhaps the Steelers thought the same way, hence the reason they decided to throw that athleticism and raw skill in a blender with a concept that fits them all perfectly, and hit frappe.

Former Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler accepted the open head coaching job at his alma mater, UTEP, and it's a wonder if he was strongly advised to seek other employment.

Enter Jack Bicknell Jr., a zone-blocking guru for the better part of the last two decades, and most recently with the Kansas City Chiefs. He's catered to more Pro Bowl offensive linemen than the Honolulu Hilton, and perhaps a few who were more athletic than Pouncey, Adams and DeCastro.

If they are, though, it's not by much. Between the three big guns of the Steelers' offensive line, the word "athlete" is affixed to them even tighter than the icy stare on DeCastro's face.

Bicknell has a coach's dream in front of him. The talent of Pouncey is exciting, but not as exciting as the fact he'll be 24 years old this season, and still could get much better. The work ethic and technical precision of DeCastro will be on full display in 2013 - almost as if the Steelers get two first round picks this season. The power forward-level athleticism of Adams from the right tackle position was his biggest strength last year, and if they can teach him more of the nasty, meanness that comes with the best linemen in the game, the sky above his 6-foot-7 frame is his only limitation.

The key to this line is Foster. The black sheep among thoroughbreds and a bell cow, Foster is the self-made castoff-turned veteran. A rare example of consistency along the least stable line (and arguably position unit) in the NFL, Foster was supplanted by DeCastro, then thrust back into the starting lineup after his injury.

While the injury didn't work well for the Steelers, comparatively speaking, it turned out to be the best thing for them for the sake of the future. Foster ratcheted his game to a new level, showing outstanding footwork and technique in 2012. He did well enough to earn a 3-year, $5.8 million deal from the Steelers in free agency - a bargain, considering the acceleration Foster's level of skill over the last season.

As the only starting linemen playing on his second contract, he carries with him a level of experience that will bode well not just for the starters, but for key back-up Kelvin Beachum.

The Steelers' multi-position back-up, Beachum - a seventh-round pick in 2012, giving the Steelers three offensive linemen with starting experience from that draft class - filled in for Gilbert and Adams last season, making six starts. He's working inside now, learning both guard positions and even center in an effort to replace Legursky, who departed via free agency to Buffalo.

Foster has been the guy who learned every position for the sake of making himself useful. He played right tackle for a spell in training camp last year after having played left and right guard for the Steelers in previous years.

All told, four of the Steelers' five starting offensive linemen have at least practice experience playing a position outside where they'll call home in 2013 (with Pouncey and Foster having made starts elsewhere). They know what their teammates are experiencing.

That can only make them better at their primary position. And if all five of them reach their potential as individuals, and Bicknell, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and head coach Mike Tomlin can get them on the same page as a functioning, cohesive unit, with some luck, this group could end the regular season with one of the best lines in the NFL.

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