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Kevin Dotson’s return revitalized the Steelers’ offensive line

The Steelers’ offensive turnaround started in the trenches.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Kevin Dotson has played 60% or more of the Steelers offensive snaps in four games this season. Those four games include both of the Steelers’ highest scoring games, 3 of their top 5 and all four rank in the top 7 for points.

The Steelers offense was terrible from Weeks 12-15, when Dotson played a total of 33 snaps and was injured in the Week 14 loss to Buffalo. Dotson returned, starting in Week 16, and the film shows a very similar story to his first start of the season back in Week 2.

Dotson stood out in the run game in his first start, but also stood out for allowing 0 quarterback pressures, but just like in that game, the Steelers had the training wheels on Dotson in Week 16.

1st quarter, 14:55. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the right side of the screen.

The Colts know the Steelers have a rookie in, and they attack him, putting Deforest Buckner (#99) outside of Dotson to try and get a 1-on-1 matchup with the rookie returning from injury. The Steelers respond by having Maurkice Pouncey come across to help with a double team on Buckner.

Double teaming Buckner isn’t an uncommon strategy, he’s one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the NFL, but you can see how David DeCastro is in a bad spot because of the strategy, having to slide quickly to his left to meet the defensive tackle without any help from the center. Grover Stewart (#90) isn’t a great pass rusher, but he takes advantage of DeCastro’s slide to put pressure on Ben Roethlisberger.

For the second drive of the game Deforest Buckner came off the field for a breather, and the Steelers stopped sending help to Kevin Dotson as he faced Tyquan Lewis (#94), who has 4 sacks and 6 QB hits while playing 40% of snaps for the Colts.

1st quarter, 7:46. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the right side of the screen.

Lewis tries an inside move, and Dotson doesn’t just block him, he gets into his ribs and drives him directly into Grover Stewart, taking out both of them.

I could watch that all day, except it got better on the next play.

1st quarter, 7:17. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the right side of the screen.

Not satisfied with one beatdown, the Colts have Lewis go inside again on the next play. This time it’s a run and Dotson takes out the entire backside of the defense. He not only drives Lewis into backup tackle Taylor Stallworth (#76), he reaches out and wraps up linebacker Bobby Okereke, and he ends up a human wall holding back three Colts defenders. The run was an outside run, and it set up 3rd and 1. You wouldn’t blame the Steelers if they ran it right behind Kevin Dotson to try and get that one yard.

1st quarter, 6:27. Kevin Dotson (#69) is the guard to the left side of the screen.

That’s exactly what they do. Look at the combo block with Pouncey and Dotson, DeCastro holding the line on Deforest Buckner and Derek Watt hitting the hole and driving back the linebacker and you can see the yard was there. The problem was Buckner is good enough to squeeze that lane from the backside, and Alejandro Villanueva loses his block, and the hole closes before Benny Snell can hit it.

If Villanueva can keep control of his defender, Snell has the first down. Instead, this drive ended with a punt. Villanueva has been one of the better lineman this season, when he is the weak point of the line, that’s a good sign for the entire line, and he isn’t going to lose those blocks very often.

By the end of the 2nd quarter the Steelers took the training wheels off and let Dotson face Deforest Buckner on his own.

2nd quarter, 3:56. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the left side of the screen.

Buckner goes for a swim here, hoping to get Dotson’s shoulder and attack the gap between him and Villanueva, but Dotson sees Buckner is high, and just puts a great shove into his ribs and completely neutralizes him.

2nd quarter, 2:04. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the left side of the screen.

Deforest Buckner gets a win here, but this is the best he did against Dotson. Dotson keeps the pocket intact, but is driven backwards and Buckner gets a hand on the ball.

Buckner had similar success against David DeCastro, on a day where DeCastro was playing better than he had been since his injury in week 5.

2nd quarter, 2:23. David DeCastro (#66) is the guard to the right side of the screen.

It’s a good comparison to see both DeCastro and Dotson face the same rush from the same great player. DeCastro meets Buckner out farther than Dotson does, but gives up more ground, making the end result roughly equal. The Steelers could put their guards 1 on 1 with Deforest Buckner without exposing their quarterback to hits, and that changed the course of the game, and the Steelers season.

At half time Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey addressed the team, and part of the message was how close they were to winning football. He was right. With the line playing better, and better execution from the receivers and quarterback in the second half, the offense took off.

3rd quarter, 8:22. watch the left side of the offensive line.

This play is vintage Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger. DeCastro is 1-on-1 with DeForest Buckner, and he does a great job keeping Buckner off of his quarterback after Buckner wins initial contact, Chukwuma Okorafor is also taken inside but keeps control of his defender and Ben Roethlisberger is able to escape to his right and make a play down field. When the interior of the line is winning their battles, Ben Roethlisberger is still a great quarterback. He’s just no longer the young man who can take hits and keep making plays.

3rd quarter, 1:39. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the right side of the screen.

The Colts try to rush Deforest Buckner inside on Dotson, and while the result is better (Buckner is run into Pouncey instead of his own team mate), Dotson gets another win.

3rd quarter, 1:35. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the right side of the screen.

This is classic (can a rookie have “classic” plays?) Kevin Dotson. One on one with Grover Stewart, he stands him up and keeps him in place, not letting him gain ground or move to either side. Just locks him down. This allows Maurkice Pouncey to help David DeCastro block Deforest Buckner and Buckner ends up farther away from Ben Roethlisberger than he started.

4th quarter, 9:45. Kevin Dotson is the guard to the left side of the screen.

The last play we’ll look at is James Conner’s 12 yard run in the fourth quarter. Not much to say about this, just Kevin Dotson doing Kevin Dotson things.

The turnaround of the Steelers offense started with improved play from the interior offensive line, and once Ben Roethlisberger started trusting his pocket more, he was looking downfield, waiting for plays to develop and stepping into throws.

Kevin Dotson coming back and solidifying the left guard position, Maurkice Poundey playing a great game, as he has every time he’s been next to Dotson, and David DeCastro looking better than he has in two months made all the difference in the world.

If the Steelers are going to make a run in the playoffs, the offensive line, including Kevin Dotson, are going to be a big part of it.