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Examining the state of the Steelers offensive line for 2020

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What was once considered a strength of Pittsburgh’s offensive unit has given some doubts following a shaky 2019.

NFL: NOV 03 Colts at Steelers Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2019 Steelers were led by a dynamic defense that finished in the top five in the league in almost every relevant category. With all eleven starters returning, and with its youngest and newest players having a year under their belt together, it’s reasonable to anticipate another dominant performance in 2020.

The offense is a different story. Most Steelers fans by now have rehashed ad nauseum their struggles last season. The encouraging news is this: When assessing the position groups on that side of the ball, most of the units appear to have improved between then and now.

The quarterback position is upgraded by leaps and bounds with the return of Ben Roethlisberger. The running back room lacks an elite player but is a year older and more versatile. The same can be said of the wide receivers and tight ends, where improved depth should make those groups more productive than they were a year ago. Roethlisberger’s health is an obvious cause for concern but, provided he avoids another major injury, the Steelers will be significantly better at the skill positions than they were in 2019.

Which brings us to the offensive line. The announcement last week by head coach Mike Tomlin that Matt Feiler, who started fifteen of sixteen games at right tackle last season, would move to the guard spot vacated by the retiring Ramon Foster. This move means there will be two new starters up front. The hope that free agent signee Stefen Wisniewski would fill Foster’s role appears to have been dashed, for the time being at least, by the absence of offseason meetings and OTA time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tomlin explained that, for the sake of familiarity, the staff preferred sliding the versatile Feiler inside and having returning players Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner battle for the tackle spot over leaving Feiler there and allowing newcomers Wisniewski and Kevin Dotson to compete at guard. This seems like a prudent decision. Still, it means the Steelers will be turning over two-fifths of a starting unit which produced polarizing results in 2019. Was the offensive line a strength, a liability, or something in between last season? It’s a difficult question to assess.

The unit’s production indeed declined in a number of areas. The team’s running backs were contacted on average at 1.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, which was one of the worst figures in the league. This means the line was not getting much push in the run game and that defenders were controlling the trenches. Not being able to move people up front is a detriment to any offense, no matter its philosophy.

In the passing game, the team’s sack rate almost doubled from the previous season. In 2018, the Steelers allowed 24 sacks on 687 pass attempts for a sack rate of 3.5%. Last season, they allowed 32 sacks on 505 attempts for a rate of 6.3%. According to Warren Sharp of @SharpFootball, the Steelers produced a Top 10 offensive line in Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate for five straight seasons before falling to the middle of the pack last season. This, despite the fact they were the second healthiest unit in the league with just five missed starts among them.

Why the decline, then? Counting Foster, four of the five starters up front are bow at least 30. Was age a factor? What about the Roethlisberger’s injury? How much did his absence hamper the line’s effectiveness? Was the loss of line coach Mike Munchack, who departed for a job in Denver, a culprit? Did the play calling have a negative impact?

These are all important factors to consider when assessing the performance of the line in 2019. Let’s examine some and how they might effect the offense moving forward.


CONTROLLING THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE

The core blockers on this Steelers line — Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Alejandro Villanueva and, previously, Foster — have never been known as a particularly physical group. DeCastro may be the closest thing to a brawler among them but he, like the others, is better suited to use his technique and athleticism to win up front than to simply bulldoze defenders off the ball.

This line was constructed, in part, to accommodate the fact the Steelers were a heavy inside and outside zone team when Le’Veon Bell was the feature back. The zone scheme requires as much patience, athleticism and communication among linemen as it does brute strength. Also, as the offense was built more and more around the talents of Roethlisberger and the receiving corps, pass protection began to take priority over run blocking.

James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. are different backs than Bell, however. Conner and Snell are power runners, better suited for a line who vertically displaces defenders than one who stretches them horizontally. Whereas Bell relied on those horizontal seams to compliment his vision and ability to cut, Conner and Snell want to get downhill in the run game and bloody their nose at the second level.

This isn’t to say the line is incapable of accommodating Conner and Snell. In 2018, Conner rushed for 973 yards in 13 games with an average of 4.5 yards per carry. The Steelers finished a respectable 12th in rushing DVOA, even though their net yardage total ranked 31st.

Last season, while the yardage total was roughly the same, they plummeted to 30th in rushing DVOA. The biggest and most obvious culprit for the decline was Roethlisberger’s absence. With Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges behind center, opponents felt emboldened to stack the box with defenders, play single-high or cover-0 and dare the Steelers to throw. Pictures like the one below, in which the defense simply put more bodies in the box than the Steelers could block, were all too common:

The Steelers have six blockers to account for eight Buffalo defenders. Right tackle Matt Feiler (71) asks guard David DeCastro, “How are we gonna block all these dudes?”

However, even when the Steelers were not at a numbers disadvantage, they struggled to run. Conner was injured on and off, missing five games and playing hurt in several others. This left Snell, a rookie, and Jaylen Samuels, a better receiver than runner, as the primary backs. Snell showed promise but was learning on the fly. His strength as a runner is between the tackles. Often, however, it was the area of the field the Steelers blocked least effectively.

Take this example from the November game in Cincinnati. On a 1st and 10 play, the Steelers ran a simple split zone concept with tight end Vance McDonald coming across the formation from left to right to kick the backside end. There are a lot of bodies in the picture, but because the Steelers are in a compressed bunch formation, it’s 8-on-8 in the box. Any time the numbers are equal, it’s an advantage (theoretically) for the offense. Throw in the fact this is a 1st and 10 situation and the Steelers could run or pass, and the fact that the split flow created by McDonald blocking away from the play should at least hold the linebackers a beat, and it’s reasonable to think this could be a positive run play.

Think again. You can be a hammer or a nail up front and, unfortunately, the left side of the Steelers line are the nails in this scenario. They just don’t get off the football, whereas Cincinnati’s interior defensive line comes off fast and hard. The slants by the 3 and 5-tech defenders are effective. Center B.J. Finney and Foster fail to move their feet and Villanueva is too high and loses vertical leverage. The Bengals relocate the line of scrimmage a yard deep into the backfield and Snell runs into a wall.

In 2019, 60% of the Steelers’ runs went to the A and B gaps, or the gaps between the tackles. The Steelers averaged 3.6 yards per carry on those runs. They were slightly better rushing off-tackle or to the edge, where they averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Neither figure is impressive. However, with Randy Fichtner preferring to run inside, and with their top two backs built for power football, the Steelers will have to find a way to control the line of scrimmage if they want to continue with this philosophy in the run game.


THE INCREASE IN SACK PERCENTAGE

The increase in sack percentage from 3.5% to 6.3% between 2018 and 2019 feels significant. Upon closer examination, however, we can see it largely as a factor of Roethlisberger’s absence and of the inexperienced quarterbacks who took his place.

How do we know this? For starters, few quarterbacks get the ball out as fast as Roethlisberger. His ability to diagnose defenses and the increasing reliance on the quick passing game in the Steelers’ offense has greatly reduced his sack and hit totals in recent seasons. When we put Rudolph and Roethlisberger side-by-side we can really see the difference in the speed of their decision making.

First, here’s Rudolph on a 3rd and 3 play from the game in Cleveland last season. Rudolph has Vance McDonald, who is lined up as the tight end to the left side of the formation, on a crossing route immediately. He should see that McDonald is covered man-to-man by the safety and that McDonald can win inside on the shallow cross due to the safety’s depth. If Rudolph catches the snap and gives him the ball right away, it’s a first down:

He doesn’t. Instead, Rudolph hesitates, holds the ball too long and gets his arm hit as he tries to throw the slower-developing hitch to Diontae Johnson. The throw short-hops Johnson and is incomplete.

Now watch Roethlisberger against the Broncos in 2018. It’s another 3rd and 3 situation. This time, the Steelers empty the backfield. Roethlisberger sees Jaylen Samuels aligned in the left slot with no overhang defender in the alley. He knows Samuels is running a bench route against cover-6 with the corner playing soft:

The pre-snap look tells Roethlisberger this is a catch-and-throw. If he gets Samuels the ball quickly enough, the running back will have a chance to make the corner miss and convert the first down.

This is exactly what happens. The ball is out immediately, Samuels has time to catch and square up and he indeed makes him the corner miss. The chains keep moving.

The other way we know the offensive line’s performance in pass protection was not as bad in 2019 as the sack rate indicates is because, based on ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate which measures a lineman’s ability to sustain his block for at least 2.5 seconds, the Steelers finished seventh. This was actually an improvement from 2018, when they finished 17th. Additionally, Pro Football Focus had the Steelers as the fifth-best pass blocking offensive line in football in 2019. That was down from third in 2018 but excellent nonetheless.

So, if the Steelers improved in pass protection individually and remained a top 5 unit as a whole, why did their sack rate nearly double? The answer is their quarterback play. Roethlisberger’s return should remedy the problem.


PLAY-CALLING

Then there is the issue of play-calling to consider. The Steelers were one of the simpler and more predictable offenses in the league the past few seasons, both with and without Roethlisberger. They ranked in the bottom half of the league in their use of pre-snap motion in both 2018 and 2019 and were dead last in their use of play-action both years. Each of these concepts can back a defense off or slow them down, making life easier on the offensive line.

Fichtner also fell into the trap at times of asking players to do things they were incapable of doing. Below, we see a still frame of a counter-sweep play where running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. will step to the quarterback before redirecting and running a sweep the opposite way. Right guard David DeCastro will pull to the edge as a lead blocker for Whyte, but the most important block on the play is the one that seals the edge where receiver Tevin Jones (circled) must pin Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer (21).

This is no contest, and not in a good way. Poyer slants aggressively across Jones’s face and Jones, frankly, looks surprised like he didn’t know Poyer was allowed to do that. Poyer’s penetration forces Whyte deep and he is unable to turn the corner as the Buffalo pursuit runs him down.

Inevitably, this reflects poorly on the offensive line, whose run-blocking statistics are negatively impacted by the play. Jones is the problem, however, along with tight end Nick Vannett who is unable to seal linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49). The real culprit, of course, is Fichtner, for asking a receiver who looks as though he’s never performed a down-block in his life to set the edge on a sweep play. Hines Ward could have executed this block. Tevin Jones? Not so much.

Fichtner was in a tough spot last season with the rampant injuries his offense endured, and he likely found himself taking a flyer on certain players simply so he could execute basic schemes. Still, coaches are always taught not to set players up for failure by asking them to do things of which they are incapable. He would do well to take this lesson to heart moving forward.


LOOKING AHEAD

The challenges that lie ahead for the unit are real. With two new starters and less practice time than normal, getting Feiler (at guard) and whoever between Okorafor and Banner wins the right tackle job on the same page with the other starters is of utmost importance. Pouncey, DeCastro and Villanueva are all advancing into their 30s as well, where the effectiveness of linemen often begins to wane. And the question of whether Shaun Sarrett, who took over for the departed Munchack as the line coach, can get the most out of this unit, remains.

On the other hand, Roethlisberger’s return will unquestionably make life easier for the line. Defenses who stack the box against the run will likely get skewered in the passing game, and teams who sell out to rush the quarterback will be exploited by Roethlisberger’s pre-snap recognition skills. The addition of speed back Anthony McFarland Jr. may alleviate some of the pressure up front as well. It is unlikely the line will suddenly morph into a unit which knocks defenses off of the football, but McFarland may provide more of a threat to the edge than existed last season. This may encourage Fichtner to run wide more often. And, as has been noted before at BTSC, the addition of Matt Canada as an offensive assistant may lead to more pre-snap motion and play-action in the offense. Throw in the fact the Steelers face what is projected to be one of the easiest schedules in the league in terms of their opponent’s defensive efficiency in 2020, and the signs for improvement up front are considerable.

The Steelers 2020 season may go as the offensive line goes. Thankfully, there are enough encouraging signs to suggest this may not be a bad thing.