The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team who many feel is improving. While this improvement might be incremental, it is improvement nonetheless. Sitting with a 3-6 record, and coming off a 20-10 win over the New Orleans Saints, the team is looking to win back-to-back games for the first time this season, and it all starts up front.
For the offense, the unit goes as the offensive line goes. After their run defense helped open holes on their way to 217 total team rushing yards, they also surrendered six sacks on rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett.
During Mike Tomlin’s Tuesday press conference, he was asked often about the offensive line, mainly about whether improvement, from a technique standpoint, is even feasible entering Week 11 of the regular season.
“Certainly.” Tomlin said. “We’re continually sharpening our sword and developing skills relative to our positions at all positions, whether it’s the collective or whether it’s individual people that have things that creep up in their game. That’s why we work every day. The skill development component of practice is a significant one. That’s why we don’t go straight into group work, even at this juncture of the season. The skill development is significant.”
The Steelers’ offensive front is a mixed bag of players drafted, and players acquired via free agency. While some see the unit as taking one step forward and two steps backwards at times, it is safe to say the group is evolving. What is the key to this evolution from a decent group to a good group? Work ethic.
“We’re just going to keep our head down and keep working.” Tomlin answered regarding the evolution of the line. “They’re not a group that looks for acknowledgement. They understood the amount of tension that was going to be on them because so many of them were new and the collective development was going to be a process.
“In the midst of that, we needed to be productive enough and to show resolve and collective commitment, and they’ve done that. So, as long as they continue to do that, it’s reasonable to expect the growth and development to continue in all areas, not just the run game.”
One factor with the success of the offensive line has been overall continuity. Outside of center Mason Cole missing a handful of snaps earlier in the season with a foot/ankle injury, the five starting linemen have all be available for the offense throughout the first nine games of the season.
“Availability is a big component of it, no doubt. When those guys have an opportunity to log snaps together and they have shared experiences and benefits from that. When they don’t, and then there’s moving people around and the inclusion of different people, then obviously it slows down progress.”
While the Steelers’ offensive line gets the majority of acknowledgement and criticism, the tight ends are certainly a part of the overall blocking scheme. While tight ends are just a piece of the puzzle, if they don’t do their jobs it can cause a breakdown in the entire blocking scheme.
Tomlin, to date, has been pleased with the tight end group from a blocking perspective.
“I thought they did a really good job, and particularly against those four-three ends. The four-three end is a challenge in today’s game at the tight end position. They’re much bigger people than tight ends, and that’s why a guy like Zach Gentry has value. Zach doesn’t look like most tight ends. He looks like a lot of four-three ends. So that’s why guys like Zach are employed. They’re less dynamic in the passing game, but their efforts are appreciated in more subtle ways. More subtle ways to the naked eye, not those of us that are in the business.”
The Steelers, as a whole, are an unfinished product. They show signs of life throughout games, but the true test will be if they can continue to get the job done week-in and week-out. If they continue on this current trajectory, there is no reason to believe they won’t be able to be a vastly improved offensive line by season’s end.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11.