The Steelers go to training camp this week with some big questions. How will the quarterback competition play out? Will the defense be able to stop the run? Is the team deep enough at corner? No questions are more important to their success in 2022, though, than those concerning the offensive line. The offense will go as the line goes. So, will the group be better this season than last, and if so, by how much?
It’s often said you get what you pay for. If that’s the case, the Steelers have cause for concern. Although they’ve signed two new starters up front, Pittsburgh has spent less money on their line for the 2022 season — a total of $23.7 million — than any team in football. 49ers left tackle Trent Williams will make nearly as much by himself, at $23.01 million.
The good news is it’s a unit bound to be motivated. Each of the likely starters has something to prove. The free agent additions know their previous teams were willing to let them walk. Those who played in Pittsburgh last season are aware of how poorly they performed. A breakout season, both individually and as a group, would be both beneficial and redemptive.
To get there, they will have to come together quickly. Training camp, then, will be huge. The spotlight will shine brightly on a unit whose performance could define Pittsburgh’s season.
Here’s an overview of the expected starting five up front, with some thoughts on their prospects as the Steelers head to camp.
Dan Moore Jr., Left Tackle
6’5-320 pounds, 24 years old (in September), 2nd season, 17 career games, 17 starts.
Moore was a pleasant surprise last season. A 4th Round draft pick from Texas A&M, he was not expected to start as a rookie. But when injuries and inefficient play hampered Pittsburgh’s original plan, Moore was given a shot.
Moore struggled at times and was occasionally outclassed by some of the better pass rushers he faced. He gave up 7.5 sacks on the year, which is fairly high. Only one of those came in the final six games, however, which included matchups against Harold Landry, Myles Garrett and Melvin Ingram. Moore’s run blocking improved as the season progressed, too. In particular, he proved to be tenacious once he locked on to a defender, displaying a penchant for playing hard to the whistle:
Moore needs to get stronger at the point of attack and to blunt bull rushes in pass protection. The former can be accomplished in the weight room, like we saw with tight end Zach Gentry, who went from being a skinny, overmatched rookie to a powerful, sometimes dominant run-blocker by his third season. The latter should be aided by new line coach Pat Meyer, whose protection philosophy stresses striking first and battling at the line of scrimmage rather than retreating and absorbing blows. Moore will have to perfect his technique to not get beaten quickly by crafty pass rushers. But it’s a style that plays to his strength and should aid in his development.
Kevin Dotson, Left Guard
6’4-320 pounds, 26 years old (in September), 3rd season, 22 career games, 13 starts.
There will be a competition at left guard between Dotson and Kendrick Green. The Steelers would prefer Dotson to win it. He is the most physical blocker on the line and displays the nastiest demeanor. At his best, he plays with a low center of gravity and has the power to bury defenders — good ones, too, like Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox (91):
Dotson does not move particularly well but he’s not an oaf, either. The Steelers have had success in the past with guards who weren’t remarkably athletic (Ramon Foster, Chris Kemoeatu). Matt Canada’s offense asks linemen to pull, reach block and climb to the second level. Dotson will be better blocking his gap. But he shouldn’t be a liability when asked to move.
As a pass protector, Dotson is adequate. Per PFF, he yielded 3 sacks on 354 pass snaps last season, which is respectable. He lunges too much, but again, Meyer’s approach should be a better fit since Dotson’s inclination is to go forward.
Dotson’s issue, and the area where he can most improve, involves his health and (perhaps) conditioning. Dotson was hampered most of last season by an ankle injury he sustained during pre-season and re-aggravated against Detroit. There were also reports that head coach Mike Tomlin was unhappy with Dotson’s conditioning routine the previous off-season, and that it may have landed him in Tomlin’s doghouse. The Steelers need Dotson to put his frustrating 2021 behind him and have the best season of his career in 2022.
Mason Cole, Center
6’5-300 pounds, 26 years old, 5th season, 60 career games, 39 starts.
Most of what Mason Cole does goes unnoticed, which is perfect for an offensive lineman. This is a group who fondly refer to their unofficial fraternity as the “Mushroom Society,” given that they toil in the dirt and out of the spotlight. In that sense, Cole could be their poster child. He is quiet, workmanlike and unspectacular. This might not bring goose bumps to the flesh of Steelers’ fans. But it may be what they need at center.
Cole is just 26 years old, but his 60 games played make him the veteran of the offensive line. He is versatile, having started at both center and guard. He moves fairly well, which makes him a good scheme fit. Cole is particularly adept as a puller, where he displays an ability to get out quickly and square up defenders at the second level. Here, at right guard, he does just that against the Steelers’ Devin Bush (55):
Cole does his best work in pass protection. He operates with a wide base, communicates well with teammates and displays poise under pressure. I particularly like this rep, where Cole (at center) nearly gets run over at the snap by Green Bay’s Kenny Clark. It’s an inauspicious beginning. But the poise he displays in regaining his balance, fighting to get his hands inside and then anchoring in to thwart the rush is remarkable:
Cole fixes the problem he created and in doing so saves the play, as Minnesota winds up with a big gain on an interference call. Not all plays go smoothly, but the ability to adjust is the sign of a professional.
Cole won’t be Pittsburgh’s next Maurkice Pouncey or Dermontti Dawson. But he could follow in the footsteps of another free agent center who's signing back in 2001 worked out pretty well for the Steelers. If Cole can resemble Jeff Hartings, the line will improve greatly.
James Daniels, Right Guard
6’4-330 pounds, 25 years old (in September), 5th season, 54 career games, 48 starts.
Here is what I wrote about Daniels after the Steelers signed him as a free agent in March:
“Daniels is a technician who uses his hands and feet to win position on defenders. He is especially effective on zone schemes, where he tends to stay square and communicate well with his teammates. When he gets to the second level, he is excellent. He has the athleticism to cover up linebackers, and once he does, they rarely escape the block.
Daniels is also solid in pass protection. He does a great job of covering the feet of a defender with his own. This means he mirrors their movements well.
His biggest weakness appears to be handling big, physical defenders at the point of attack. He can struggle to get a push in one-on-one situations and is susceptible to a well-executed bull rush. Stylistically, he’s more David DeCastro than Ramon Foster. If Daniels winds up reminding Steelers fans of DeCastro, they will be thrilled.”
There’s a theme developing here. In discussing Moore, Cole, Daniels and, in a moment, Chuks Okorafor, the Steelers seem to be prioritizing versatile linemen who can move laterally and protect the quarterback. This should tell us a lot about the offense. They will be more of a horizontal attack, looking to create seams in the defense by making them defend the width of the field, than one that tries to displace teams vertically. They will still run the inside zone play, as every offense does, but they will be defined by their use of wide zone, sweep, boot, play-action, perimeter screens, and RPOs.
Daniels is a great fit for that style. And, with 48 starts under his belt before his 25th birthday, he has enough experience to become a leader up front. I expect Daniels to become Pittsburgh’s best offensive lineman and one of their smartest free agent signings in years.
Chuks Okorafor, Right Tackle
6’6-320 pounds, 25 years old (in August), 5th season, 46 career games, 35 starts.
The Steelers know what they have in Okorafor. Just as importantly, they know what they don’t have. They didn’t sign him to a 3-year, $29.25 million extension with the expectation they would transform him into a mauler. The extension was more about how the offense will change post-Ben Roethlisberger, and Okorafor’s fit in that scheme.
Okorafor can protect the quarterback. He can block the perimeter on pin-and-pull sweeps and receiver screens. He can use his long arms in the run game to handle smaller edge players, like we see here:
What he hasn’t been able to do is gap block. If Canada wants to run Power at Okorafor, he might as well punch himself in the face. When Okorafor blocks down, his feet are a mess, his hands get sloppy, and his weight is too far forward. Hopefully, with better instruction from Pat Meyer, this will improve. No matter how eager Canada is to attack the perimeter, the Steelers will need to run between the tackles to keep defenses honest.
Expect Okorafor to be critiqued harshly because of the contract he signed. Maybe it was more than the Steelers should have paid. For what was available, however, and for how the Steelers intend to structure their base offense, resigning him made sense. Hopefully, he rewards their faith with a breakout season.
Green should be the swing player on the interior, giving the Steelers a valuable depth piece. He struggled as a starting center last year, but as a backup who can play both center and guard, he’s important.
Joe Haeg returns as a backup tackle who can play guard in a pinch. They also signed Trent Scott, a veteran who has played in 53 games over his career with 19 starts. His signing in May went largely unnoticed but could sure up the Steelers’ lack of depth at tackle.
Green, Haeg and Scott give Pittsburgh three backups with starting experience who could be effective in limited roles. The Steelers have a deeper bench than they did a year ago.
At tackle, Moore in Year 2 will be better than Moore in Year 1, while Okorafor should improve in an offense better suited to his strengths. Inside, Dotson and Daniels will be better than Trai Turner and last season’s Pupu Platter at left guard. Ditto for Cole at center over Green.
The coach should be better, too. Meyer is a veteran who seems like a great fit for a unit that needs instruction more than motivation. His guys don’t need to be pep talked into running through a wall. They need to master combo blocks and pick up twist stunts. They need to rep their timing on the outside zone play. They need to familiarize themselves with a moving pocket after protecting the statuesque Roethlisberger last season. Meyer should be able to help.
The challenge now is to do it. The line doesn’t have long to gel, and an early slate of tough defenses — Cincinnati, New England, Buffalo and Tampa Bay among their first six games — means they will need to do so quickly. They will almost certainly be better than the 2021 unit. How much better is the question that may define the season.
The spotlight will be bright. It’s showtime for the men up front in Pittsburgh.