The Pittsburgh Steelers are an organization which is known for certain positions. They absolutely are known for their defensive pass rushers, but don’t forget the center position. Going back to Mike Webster’s time in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have deployed centers which have been mainstays in the lineup for a long period of time.
However, since the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey, the team has been searching for options which can help fill the need in the middle of the offensive line. Last offseason the Steelers signed Mason Cole in free agency, and the 26 year old lineman was viewed by many as nothing more than a stop-gap player at center. A versatile piece who can play both guard and center.
However, throughout the season Cole proved to have more value than simple as a player filling a glaring void along the offensive line. Last season head coach Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly of the man who many believe was the captain of the offensive front.
“Man, he’s a sharp guy,” said Coach Tomlin during the season. “He brings a can-do attitude. He’s a winner in his approach to ball. He’s a good communicator. His football intellect is really solid and it’s helpful at that position in terms of the identification of protections and picking up the blitz game.”
As most players do, when evaluating his season, Cole was happy with the progression of the offensive line, but was far from satisfied.
“I think there’s always room for improvement in every part of the game whether it be physical, mental or even the leadership aspect,” said Cole. “So, I think I can be better in that aspect. It comes with the position. And then when you sign a new contract here, it comes with it a little more too. Just being an older guy in the room, even though I don’t feel that old. In our offensive line room, I would be one of the more experienced guys, along with Chuks (Chukwuma Okorafor) and James (Daniels). It just came naturally. I think we’ve got a really good room and guys bought into what we were doing.”
As it pertains to the center position, Cole realizes how key the communication aspect of the position as the offense takes the field. If everyone isn’t on the same page, the already thin margin of error is now out the window.
“One of the biggest parts of playing center is making sure everyone’s on the same page,” said Cole. “So over time, through the year, I got better communicating and just understanding the guys you’re playing with, how much need to be communicated, what needed to be communicated. There are certain guys who know a little more, have a better feel. And there are guys that don’t. It’s knowing the guys you are playing with, knowing what they need. It’s more like a servant to those guys and making sure they know what they’re doing and being that guy for them.”
When you go back to the 2022 preseason, the offensive line was a constant point of criticism for the Steelers offense. Players were struggling to get comfortable with each other, with the new scheme of Pat Meyer, and everything else which comes with a re-vamped unit. Nonetheless, Cole understands criticism comes with the territory.
“I think there’s always going to be strong criticism for the most part for the offensive line,” said Cole. “But in our room, we just didn’t pay attention to the noise. We just kept our heads down and it kept working. We knew the type of guys we had in the room. We knew the type of players we had in the room. We never lost confidence. There was never a point where you thought about losing confidence. We knew the type of players we were and just kept pushing forward.”
Pushing forward was something the unit did both figuratively and literally. The running game was sparked in the second half of the season, and the group played their best football when it mattered most.
“I feel good about the offensive line play and how we ended the season,” said Cole. “It felt good to end the season the right way. If we would have lost the last couple of games, it wouldn’t have felt right. Obviously, we wanted to be in the playoffs, but it feels good now to carry that momentum through the offseason and into the next season.”
At this point, the question remains if Cole is in the team’s long-term plans at the position. Fans should realize the team has options with Cole. Not necessarily in terms of cutting ties with the lineman, but using his versatility to their advantage.
Most would agree the team should address the left guard position, and Cole could potentially be a part of that solution if they decide to draft a center in the 2023 NFL Draft. Some mock drafts have the Steelers addressing the position in the early rounds of the draft, and Cole’s versatility will be a positive for him remaining on the roster and being a contributor in some way, shape, or form.
Ultimately, the Steelers can view the offensive line as a want, not necessarily a need. Sure, they can improve at some areas, but with all five starting linemen returning, they know they can run it back and still have a competent group along the offensive front. Nonetheless, improvement can still take place, and you have to wonder where Cole fits in that equation.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the rest of the NFL offseason.