The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone through plenty of changes since the beginning of the 2019 NFL season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. There have been multiple offensive coordinators, offensive line coaches, position coaches, quarterbacks, running backs, and skill position players. There have been substantial changes to the offensive line as well, both in personnel and scheme.
Even through all those changes, one thing remains the same — the Steelers offense is subpar. It's ineffective, both in sustaining drives needed for optimal time of possession, and putting points on the scoreboard. The Steelers struggle to consistently run or pass the football. A huge culprit in these struggles is the offensive line, the foundation of any offense.
As you can imagine, I believe that the Steelers offensive line deserves the majority of the blame for the Steelers ineffective and lackluster offensive performance in recent years. Simply put, the Steelers offensive success moving forward will mirror the growth and improvement of their offensive line. They go hand in hand.
The reasoning behind the Steelers offensive line struggles are plentiful, as are the suggested solutions. One common belief is how the Steelers haven't invested enough financial and draft capital on improving the unit. There is evidence that would seem to support that theory, when you consider the Steelers have the least expensive starting offensive line in the league, and the fact they don't have a single first round selection in the starting unit or on the depth chart.
That sounds like a sound theory, especially when you consider the fact that the last standout Steelers offensive line was constructed on the All Pro talents of Maurkice Pouncey and David Decastro; two first rounds draft picks, but I don't believe that is the answer.
The Steelers have always constructed their offensive lines from the inside out. The Hall of Fame is full of Steelers legends, including some of the greatest interior linemen in NFL history. That being said, the Steelers don't have an offensive tackle in the Hall of Fame, nobody even close actually. The Steelers actually have been more successful converting tight ends into tackles than drafting and developing first round picks at the position.
The Steelers went the free agency route in trying to rebuild their offensive line for 2022. The Steelers signed former third rounder Mason Cole to solidify their center position, and they signed former second round selection James Daniels to strengthen the right guard spot. Finally, they re-signed their own free agent right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. All three have proven NFL experience, but are still young enough for one to assume they haven't reached their full potential. Left guard Kevin Dotson and left tackle Dan Moore Jr. round out the starting five.
The Steelers new-look offensive line started out the preseason looking too much like last year's version. Missed assignments, subpar communication, and a lack of chemistry invoked unpleasant memories of recent past. With that being said, the offensive line has shown slight improvement over the first few games of this season. You know what they say, beggars can't be choosers.
Okorafor has enjoyed the best start to a season in his young career. He is playing like he suddenly experienced an epiphany when he signed his new-three year contract to stay in the Steel City. I have honestly been intrigued by Okorafor's potential ever since the Steelers utilized a third round pick on him. He had the length and mobility of a left tackle on film, but his lack of intensity and physicality thus far in his four year career has been infuriating. Suddenly, he looks like a new man, a talent who finally feels comfortable in his own skin. He has been adequate run blocking, but exceptional in pass protection. He has been the Steelers best, and most consistent, lineman.
Daniels was arguably the Steelers’ biggest free agent target. Daniels is young, talented, and loaded with potential. His versatility had been both a blessing and a curse during his tenure with the Chicago Bears. He was moved around the interior early and often, willing to be utilized wherever he was needed. The lack of positional stability stunted his development. The Steelers immediately named him their starting right guard, and are hoping the familiarity gained at a single position will accelerate his professional growth. Daniels appears to be getting more comfortable and confident by the week.
Cole has been everything the Steelers were hoping for when they signed him in free agency: a stabilizing veteran presence in the interior offensive line. Cole is a fundamentally sound tactician, who looks spectacularly solid in comparison to last year's starters at the position. I have been impressed by Cole's leadership and communication skills, coupled with his underrated functional strength and mobility.
The left side of the Steelers offensive line consists of Kevin Dotson at left guard, and Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle. The left side of the line is slightly behind the right in terms of execution and development, but that is completely understandable considering the circumstances. The Steelers staged an ill-advised position battle between Dotson and Kendrick Green during training camp. The competition, coupled with a nagging injury, hindered Dotson gaining chemistry with his new linemates and blocking scheme.
Dotson has looked lost on multiple occasions thus far this season, especially during his limited preseason action. He appears to be finding his footing finally, slowly but surely. Dotson is not an ideal fit for the Steelers new outside zone concepts, as he is more of a power dependent people mover, but he appears willing and able. He remains more effective against power than speed. His pass protection is a work in progress.
Dan Moore Jr. has been a mixed bag of good and not so good plays thus far this season. He worked hard during the offseason focusing on his functional strength and hand placement. There has been noticeable improvement in both areas. He is handling bull rush attempts in pass protection much better, which was an issue in 2021. He has struggled at times with his balance and footwork, mainly due to the Steelers new blocking requirements stressing aggressiveness and first contact, even in pass protection. He seems to be improving by the week.
The Steelers offensive line improvement in the early stages of the season appears to have went unnoticed by the national sports media, and with many in the fan base. This offensive line was constructed in typical Steelers fashion with all five members being young, experienced, and talented. Each player is 26 or younger, and under contract with the Steelers for the foreseeable future. If the Steelers can turn all that potential into production, they may find themselves in a very financially favorable situation. Low risk with potentially high reward.
The Steelers have numerous issues on offense presently. Surprisingly, the line isn't the biggest one.