The Pittsburgh Steelers had consecutive 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013, during which time everyone from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to general manager Kevin Colbert were careful not to admit the team was rebuilding. Still, whatever word you want to use to describe it, the Steelers offensive line has undergone a transformation in recent years.
Sean Kugler, the current head coach of UTEP, was the Steelers offensive line coach from 2010-2012. While the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl in the 2010 season and had a respectable 12-4 record in 2011, the offensive line was a weak link. Under Kugler, the offensive line allowed 43 sacks in 2010, 42 in 2011, and 37 in 2012.
After Kugler left for UTEP, Jack Bicknell became the offensive line coach for the 2013 season. Todd Haley also took over as offensive coordinator that year after the departure of Bruce Arians. Haley's tenure got off to a rocky start, with rumors of a tumultuous relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. As Roethlisberger adjusted to Haley's new schemes and the departure of his long-time mentor, friend, and offensive coordiantor Arians, the offensive line struggled some as well under new offensive line coach Bicknell.
In 2013, the Steelers did not pick any new offensive linemen in the draft, despite losing Max Starks and Willie Colon to free agency, but had hoped that new leadership would be enough to leverage the team's young talent, which at that time included Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum. 2013 saw another 8-8 record and an offensive line that allowed 43 sacks, and struggled with injuries. 2013 was teh season Maurkice Pouncey was sidelined with injury eight snaps into the season. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 15th in the NFL that year.
The biggest shift for the Steelers offensive line came in 2014 when the front office dismissed Bicknell and brought in Mike Munchak to head up the unit. Last year, the unit allowed only 33 sacks, a tremendous improvement over their performance under Kugler and Bicknell. More impressive, the 2014 offensive line's pass blocking ranking, according to Pro Football Focus was third. Their overall ranking was No. 8, up from 15 the year before. The offensive line also helped running back Le'Veon Bell rush for 1,361 yards.
Munchak is one of the best offensive line coaches in the entire NFL, and Haley's offense was more focused on protecting Roethlisberger than Arians' strategy when he was at the helm. These two factors have transformed a mediocre unit into one of the most competent in the league.
The role of the offensive line coach should not be underestimated. Under Mike Munchak the 2009 Tennessee Titans allowed only 15 sacks (2nd) and 44 quarterback hits (T-1st). In 2010, the team had similarly impressive stats, allowing only 46 quarterback hits (1st) and 27 sacks (7th). That same year, the Pittsburgh Steelers allowed 43 sacks (25th) and 78 quarterback hits (21st).
Still, personnel on the line definitely makes a difference. With both Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum out with season-ending injuries this year, the Steelers offensive line has not been able to match its performance from last year. They are ranked 18th in the league so far with 23 sacks. The unit still is effective, however, providing opportunities for productivity from running back Le'Veon Bell before his injury and DeAngelo Williams, his backup. And, the team is tied for sixth for fewest quarterback hits allowed with 39.
After two disappointing 8-8 seasons, the Steelers made some key changes to help bolster the offensive line. While in the short-term the changes have allowed for greater productivity on the ground, better pass protection, and fewer sacks, in the long run, better protection for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger means a longer, more productive career for the Steelers future Hall of Fame quarterback.