The “skill positions” were not supposed to matter. Losing an all-pro wide receiver. Success with any running back they chose to play. The Steelers were designed to be able to handle any of this because of two major factors: Ben Roethlisberger, and an elite offensive line.
Rothlisberger’s 2019 season is over. He had avoided going on injured reserve for 15 years before finally succumbing to a season-ending injury. But with a possible replacement waiting in the wings in Mason Rudolph, it’s still should have been an acceptable transition for the team. But no matter who has been taking the snaps, the offensive line has not been living up to how they were billed going into the 2019 season.
As a data-driven person, I first like to turn to the numbers to see what they support when it comes to the offensive line. In the three games in 2019, the Steelers have rushed for 32, 81, and 79 yards in each respective game for a total of 192 yards on the ground in 51 attempts. With an average of 3.76 yards per carry, the Steelers are ranked 24th in the NFL so far for 2019. But 34 of the Steelers yards have come from quarterback scrambles and wide receiver end-around plays. If you take them away, the running backs have 148 yards rushing on 43 attempts for 3.44 yards per carry.
Just to make sure we’re bringing in all the data, in the passing game the Steelers have given up four sacks in three games for 2019 along with 10 quarterback hits.
So while the data says the Steelers are struggling to run the ball and they are average or better protecting the quarterback, the most troubling aspects of the offensive line is passing the “eye test.” It’s difficult to get measurable data on the offensive line, so many times what do you see tells more of the story.
The biggest thing that I am not seeing from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line in 2019 comes down to the aspect of “surge.” When the Steelers are running the ball, you want to see the entire offensive line pushing the other team down the field. If your offensive line has a positive surge, the line of scrimmage is being pushed a few yards downfield. If the offensive line is not getting any surge, then pretty much where the ball was snapped is where the offense and defense are colliding and staying. If it’s the defensive line who is getting the surge, the offensive line is being driven back. Obviously, especially when running the ball, getting surge is a key component to success.
The reason surge is so important is that while the offensive line is supposed to open holes for the running back, if those holes are occurring down field there’s just an overall greater net gain in rushing. Even if a running back is being tackled at first contact, if the contact is occurring two or three yards downfield due to the line driving back the defense, it’s still a decent run.
When combining the concept of surge with the eye test when watching the Steelers offensive line, they are not getting the job done. On running plays, they are pretty much locking up at the line of scrimmage and not pushing their opponents down field. I don’t know if it’s blocking scheme or not winning individual match up’s, but it’s just not happening.
As for passing plays, the offensive line is not trying to surge down the field unless it is a specifically designed quick pass. As the line drops into pass protection, they are tasked with meeting the pass rush and holding their positions. Unfortunately, too many times the lineman were pushed around by the defense creating pressure on the quarterback.
So what is going on with the offensive line where they can’t get surge on run plays or holder positions on pass plays?
The one possibility is what fans love to scream about any time something goes wrong: coaching. Yes, the Steelers lost a Hall of Fame player and offensive line coach Mike Munchak to the Denver Broncos this past off season. But according to current and former players, this Steelers’ line coach was just as respected in the locker room as coach Munchak. So while things are not good, I am not prepared to place the blame solely on Shaun Sarrett. It could be some growing pains with the transition in coach, but constantly losing 1-on-1 battles is not solely his responsibility.
Another factor involved could be the overall aging at the position. While experience is desired, there comes a point when your years catch up to you and production starts trending in the wrong direction. As for the starting offensive line, Matt Feiler is the youngest at 27 years old. The only other player under 30 on the Steelers’ o-line is David DeCastro who is 29 and will turn 30 in January. While Maurkice Pouncey is considered to be possibly edging towards retirement, at 30 he is still younger than both Alejandro Villanueva (31) and Ramon Foster (33).
Another factor which is to be considered with the running game is the offensive line might not be asked to get a surge when running out of shotgun. If the Steelers are trying to disguise their run game when the quarterback is in shotgun, the line may be asked to simply hold their positions in case there is a change with a quarterback’s plan with the play where he would take the option to pass instead. While this has become more common in football on all levels, I don’t think it is doing the Steelers line any favors when it comes to running the ball. Being able to fire off the line and drive your opponents back is the most effective way to get positive yards with every run. Perhaps the lineman are being handcuffed by the scheme and not allowed to do such. It’s quite hard to tell a lot of the time if they just aren’t getting any push, or if they’re not driving downfield intentionally.
While some have suggested it was Ben Roethlisberger‘s passing which masked any pass protection issues last season, the fact that the line play has been pretty inconsistent since Week 1 kind of dispels this issue. So what exactly is the problem?
I wish I knew the answer to the offensive line problems for sure. I wish there was a simple fix to make it better in weeks to come. But at this point I don’t know what the Steelers could do to improve for 2019. All I know is that if they want to develop an offensive game plan moving forward, they should look at the offensive line not as a strength, but as a weakness.