"Get rid of the football! He holds onto the ball too long!"
How many times were one or both of those phrases uttered during Steelers games from, say 2006 to 2013? Maybe 333? Try 333 multiplied by 333, and you'd probably still have a conservative figure, but you'd be getting warmer. The number 333 is significant, because that's how many times all-world and very valuable two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked during the aforementioned eight-season stretch. During that span, Roethlisberger sustained a fractured foot, a sprained foot, a few concussions, a high-ankle sprain, a bloody nose, a broken nose and a sprained SC joint--and those are just the injuries I can think of off of the top of my head.
Many Steelers fans are expert in their analysis, so, in reality, most folks should have been shouting, "Hold your block a little longer!" Or maybe, "Hold the guy you're blocking, because he's way better than you!"
The reason those phrases would have been more appropriate is because the Steelers' offensive line was just plain bad in those days (think the current secondary, but much heavier). The talent simply wasn't there, as Pittsburgh didn't invest high draft picks in offensive linemen for many years, and this was noticeable most of the time, but especially against teams that had invested highly in their defensive front-seven, such as the Ravens. Sure the Steelers won their share of battles against Baltimore during those championship seasons--including two playoff games on the way to appearing in two Super Bowls--but a lot of the broken bones suffered by Roethlisberger occurred in those legendary AFC North clashes.
It's true that Roethlisberger has a tendency to hold onto the football longer than most, as he's always looking for the big play downfield, and this has probably led to a few more sacks over the years. But to criticize him for that tendency would be like criticizing Barry Sanders for having too many tackles for loss on his resume during his Hall of Fame career.
When a quarterback continuously has trouble getting to the seventh step in his drop, there's a problem. Heck, for that matter, when a quarterback even has trouble getting to the fifth step in his drop far too often, there's really a problem--and the problem is far greater than your quarterback holding onto the football for too long.
And that's just the passing. What about the running game?
Do you think it was just a coincidence that Pittsburgh started having major problems running the football consistently--especially in critical, short-yardage situations--in the years after Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings and Marvel Smith departed? It wasn't any coincidence and, again, that was mainly based on the talent-level of the guys trying to open the holes and win the battles against those in front of them. That was especially the case when going up against teams with players of high-pedigree among their front-seven (Haloti Ngata, anyone)?
For years, fans wondered why the organization didn't invest high picks in the offensive line (think the current secondary, but much heavier), and it was certainly a popular topic.
But like any successful business, the Steelers realized their shortcomings and began to invest in the offensive line starting in 2010, and they didn't stop until they accrued two first-rounders and two second-rounders over a three-year span.
Fact is, the line continued to struggle for a few years, as at least one of those high picks, tackle Mike Adams, failed to seize the day and win a job and others struggled to find their form, such as fellow second-round tackle, Marcus Gilbert.
It also didn't help that there was a change of offensive coordinators and there were three different offensive line coaches from 2009-2013.
There was also a fourth offensive line coach, and that turned out to be a good thing. Not only did the Steelers realize there was a talent problem along the line and relentlessly set out to rectify it. They knew there was also a coaching problem and didn't stop until they found the right man. And what a man he was. Speaking of high-end draft picks, when Mike Munchak became available following the 2013 season, Pittsburgh wisely scooped him up and it was like winning the lottery of offensive line coaches. Nobody in the business is any better at coaching and coaching up offensive linemen than Munchak.
But the Steelers' investment in the offensive line didn't pay off with all four of their high picks. Adams spent last season as a backup swing-tackle and is currently out after having back surgery. One of the players that Adams backed up was Kelvin Beachum, who Pittsburgh found in the seventh round in same 2012 draft.
Speaking of coincidences, it couldn't have been one when the line started to stabilize in 2013, exactly when Beachum took over at left tackle for Adams.
Is it a loss for the organization that Adams has never developed into the player many thought he could? Yes. But you have to say it's a win for the talent-scouts and coaches that Beachum has turned himself into one of the best young tackles in the NFL despite his comparative lack of size (6'2", 303 pounds). You could say the decision to go with a no-huddle helped the line tremendously in the second half of the 2013 season, as it not only spent the majority of the first half dealing with the struggles of Adams, but also with the absence of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who was lost for the year after suffering a major knee injury in Week 1. Fair enough, but what about last season, when the no-huddle wasn't emphasized nearly as much as people speculated that it would, yet the Steelers still set all kinds of records on offense?
Roethlisberger passed for 4,952 yards in 2014 and added 32 touchdowns versus only nine interceptions. Antonio Brown led the entire NFL in receptions with 129, and he was complemented quite nicely by a group of targets that included an ultra-talented young receiver in Martavis Bryant and a veteran tight end named Heath Miller. Le'Veon Bell finished second in the league in yards from scrimmage (2,215) in only his second season.
It was exciting to see and a shift from the old days when the defense did most of the heavy lifting on Sunday afternoons.
But would this have been possible without a stable offensive line? Roethlisberger attempted the most passes in his career in 2014 (608), yet he was only sacked 33 times for a career-low sack-percentage of 5.1.
If that's not a testament to an improved offensive line and the all-around investment that the organization made, then I don't know what is.
Actually, I do, and that's the early-portion of the 2015 campaign. Pittsburgh lost Pouncey to injury once again when he went down in the third preseason game with a broken ankle, and Cody Wallace was promoted to starting center.
How would the offensive line do without its best player? Try only two sacks of Roethlisberger on 65 passing attempts so far in 2015 (a sack-percentage of 3.0). How about a combined 204 rushing yards in two games for veteran DeAngelo Williams, while filling in for the suspended Bell?
One of the few criticisms of a Steelers' offense that averaged 27.2 points per game in 2014 was that it didn't finish off as many drives as it possibly should have (just 28th in the league in goal-line efficiency). An emphasis was placed on that in the off-season and, if Week 2 against the 49ers was any indication, that emphasis seems to be paying off, as Pittsburgh scored five of its six touchdowns from inside the 10 and added two two-point conversions for good-measure.
Coaches, general managers and scouts sure take a lot of blame when draft picks don't pan out, but they should also get a lot of credit when they do.
As it pertains to the Steelers' offensive line and how they went about improving it in recent years, there aren't enough accolades to go around.