clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The rebuilding of the Steelers offensive line was always going to be a multi-year process

The rebuilding of the Steelers offensive line is ongoing, and it might continue to be that for a little longer. Rebuilding phases are called that for a reason.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

I remember it like it was yesterday: The day the Steelers' once-great offensive line became not-so-great.

Actually, I don’t remember the literal day, but I do know it seemed to happen at some point during the 2020 campaign.

Ramon Foster retired after the 2019 season. Maurkice Pouncey’s skills had been noticeably declining for some time heading into 2020. David DeCastro, who had been going strong prior to 2020, just wasn’t himself that year due to a lingering ankle injury. Alejandro Villanueva, a converted tight end/defensive lineman with a great backstory who beat long odds to become a Pro Bowl left tackle, was left with nothing but the great backstory by the end of that season. Matt Feiler, an undrafted free agent who became a damn-fine tackle and guard under the guidance of Mike Munchak, was set to become one of those “cashing in” free agents during the 2021 offseason.

Pouncey retired after the 2020 season, which seemed to signify the end of an era and the beginning of a rebuilding phase for the offensive line.

But it wasn’t going to happen in one offseason. I realize people wanted it to happen in one offseason, but that’s people for you.

The Steelers weren’t likely to re-sign Villanueva (they didn’t). They probably wanted to re-sign Feiler, who switched from right tackle to left guard in 2020 in an effort to replace Foster.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the rebuilding phase for their offensive line began right as they were sentenced to salary-cap jail for the duration of the 2021 free-agent frenzy.

Pittsburgh had no chance at re-signing a hot commodity like Feiler, who inked a deal with the Chargers.

If my memory is correct, B.J. Finney, an undrafted free agent who, like Feiler, was with the Steelers during the Munchak years and became a versatile interior lineman, was the first offensive line acquisition of the 2021 offseason when he was brought back after brief and unsuccessful stints with both the Seahawks and Bengals in 2020.

“Is B.J. Finney the answer at center!” many wondered in an outraged tone. Even though people are people, it was kind of hard to blame those particular people for feeling that way, considering the team’s limited financial resources during the 2021 offseason.

The Steelers then re-signed Zach Banner, a right tackle who missed the last 15-plus games of the 2020 regular season after suffering a torn ACL.

Would Banner return 100 percent healthy and reclaim the starting job he won during the 2020 training camp?

What about outside free agents? Despite being cap challenged, the Steelers did manage to sign Joe Haeg to a two-year contract. Haeg, a fifth-round pick by the Colts in 2016, was a poor man’s Nate Herbig/Isaac Seumalo in terms of the excitement generated by his arrival, but he did come to Pittsburgh with 38 career starts under his belt in both Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. Best-case-scenario: Haeg, then 28, would step in and be the starting left or right tackle. At worst, he would be a fine swing tackle.

Actually, the swing tackle thing was probably the best-case scenario, since many people wanted to use a first-round pick on a tackle heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Steelers did decide to address the holes along the line during that year’s draft, only they didn’t do it with a first or second-round pick. Instead, the Steelers drafted running back Najee Harris in the first round and tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second. Pittsburgh did use a premium pick on an offensive lineman when it selected Kendrick Green, a center/guard from Illinois, in the third round. Green was described as tough and athletic, and he quickly endeared himself to fans when he spiked his sunglasses and then wildly celebrated with his entire family when he learned he was just drafted by the Steelers.

Green was said to have the kind of athleticism to get to the next level (I believe that’s how offensive line experts describe such people) and was earmarked to be Pouncey’s replacement at center.

In the fourth round, the Steelers selected Dan Moore Jr., a left tackle out of Texas A&M. Moore was either a reach or a steal, depending on which draft publication you read, but every expert agreed that he was strictly a left tackle...even if fans immediately began to suggest that he should simply move over to right tackle and call it a day (they’ve never stopped suggesting that, btw).

There was hope at center with the rookie Green, and there appeared to be more than enough optimism at left guard with Kevin Dotson, everyone’s favorite fourth-round pick from the 2020 draft, poised to take Feiler’s place as the starter.

Unfortunately for Dotson, rumors began to surface during the 2021 training camp that at least one Steelers coach was not happy with the second-year player’s preparation and/or fitness.

But Dotson did win the starting job at left guard, while Green, the rookie, was named starting center. Believe it or not, Moore quickly ascended up the depth chart at that year’s training camp and was named starting left tackle to begin the 2021 campaign.

What about right tackle? Did Banner ever reclaim his health and his starting job? No, on both counts; Chukwuma Okorafor, a 2018 third-round pick who became a full-time starter in 2020 due to Banner’s injury, would remain at right tackle.

Thankfully, the Steelers had a veteran at right guard who could anchor this young offensive line. Only, it wasn’t DeCastro, who never seemed to recover from the ankle issue that caused him to miss a few games in 2020. The Steelers released DeCastro in late June of 2021 and signed Trai Turner, a veteran who had spent six of his first seven seasons with the Carolina Panthers, to be the new right guard.

How would this revamped offensive line do in 2021?

Not well, that’s for damn sure.

Moore did okay at left tackle for a fourth-round rookie. Dotson missed several games at left guard (maybe that coach was right) and was occasionally replaced by John Leglue, a 2019 undrafted free agent. As for Green? He did have a habit of getting to the second level, only it was the second level of the backfield, where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s chest just happened to be located on many occasions. Turner was okay at right guard, while Okorafor was serviceable at right tackle.

The play of the young offensive line in 2021 may have been worse than the play of the old offensive line in 2020.

That brings us to the 2022 offseason, where the Steelers, flush with cap space for the first time in ages due to the retirement of Roethlisberger (among other things), used the free-agent frenzy to address many needs, especially along the interior of the offensive line.

Green was quickly moved from center to guard, and he was replaced in free agency by Mason Cole, a 2018 third-round pick who came to town with 39 career starts on his resume.

The Steelers then wowed everyone by bringing in James Daniels, a former second-round pick and one of the more high-profile free-agent offensive linemen, to play right guard.

At 25 and 24, respectively, Cole and Daniels were definitely seen as upgrades along the interior of the line.

The Steelers also used free agency to re-sign one of their own, when they inked Okorafor to a three-year contract. Okorafor was still young and had been the full-time starter at right tackle the previous two seasons. Was Okorafor a Pro Bowl player? No, but he was still young and seemed to be improving. At the very least, he was solid and steady. In other words, he was the Max Starks of the modern era, a left tackle from the Super Bowl years who Pittsburgh repeatedly placed the transition tag on before finally signing him to a multi-year contract.

Unfortunately for Okorafor, he was Max Starks in the social media age, so his re-signing was simply the worst.

What about the draft? Would the Steelers finally address the offensive line with a premium pick?

No. In fact, Pittsburgh didn’t draft a single offensive lineman in 2022.

Thankfully, the Steelers did acquire veteran Jesse Davis in a trade with the Vikings last summer. Davis was sort of like Haeg, only the former came to town with a bit more excitement because he was the new Haeg.

The old Haeg was cut.

How did the Steelers' offensive line perform in 2022? Not really well at all, at least not at first.

The Steelers’ struggled to run the football with any consistency over the first half of the season, while Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett, the quarterbacks of record in 2022, spent a good bit of time running for their lives.

Thankfully, they could both run well enough to not sustain season-ending injuries.

Surprisingly, the offensive line did improve over the second half of the 2022 campaign, at least in its ability to open holes in the running game did.

Also, all five of Pittsburgh’s starters remained healthy, and you didn’t see a whole lot of Davis or even J.C. Hassenauer, an undrafted free agent in 2018 who became Pittsburgh’s starting center in the second half of the 2021 campaign when it was apparent that Green didn’t have the ability to play the position.

As for Green, you saw none of him in 2022, even if the coaches made it seem like he was the favorite to beat out Dotson for the starting left guard spot at training camp last summer.

Here we are, it’s the 2023 offseason, and the Steelers' offensive line has seen two more high-profile additions, with the free-agent signings of the previously mentioned Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo.

Seumalo is presumed to be the starting left guard, while Herbig will be a versatile backup.

Do both come with questions? Of course. Despite all of the excitement about Seumalo, for example, it’s worth mentioning that he has a history with injuries—including a Lisfranc injury that caused him to miss most of 2021—and has only been a full-time starter twice since the Eagles selected him in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

But Seumalo does appear to be an upgrade over Dotson as a starter, while both Dotson and Herbig give the Steelers better depth at the guard position.

The Steelers also added free agent Le'Raven Clark, a veteran tackle with a resume that suggests he might be the new Jesse Davis.

What more will the Steelers do to address the offensive line in the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft? Will they use a first or second-round pick to select a tackle? How do they feel about Moore, who has spent his first two seasons as the starter on the left side--the blind side--the most critical position along the offensive line?

There are certainly more questions that need to be answered regarding the Steelers' offensive line, but it seems to be much improved over where it was a year ago at this time, and certainly where it was two years ago at this time.

Is it a finished product? I guess we’ll know when we know. It took the Steelers about five years to put together an offensive line—coaches and all—that was the envy of the NFL.

Pittsburgh is in Year 3 of this offensive line rebuild and is currently on its second position coach since moving on from Shaun Sarrett following the 2020 campaign.

It would be impressive if the Steelers can make their offensive line a strength two years quicker than they did the last time, but don’t be surprised if it takes a little longer.

A rebuilding phase is usually called that for a reason.