Tomlin: Steelers 'reaping the reward' of O-line investment

Steelers lineman David DeCastro (66) celebrates a touchdown during the third quarter of their AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.
Steelers lineman David DeCastro (66) celebrates a touchdown during the third quarter of their AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, March 23, 2016, 9:42 p.m.

BOCA RATON, Fla. —— Ben Roethlisberger stepped to the podium following Super Bowl XLIII with the Lombardi Trophy in his right hand and proudly proclaimed: “Who is laughing now, O-line?”

The appropriate response at the time was everybody.

Times sure have changed.

Once a punchline to a joke, the Steelers have transformed their offensive line from a weak spot to possibly their greatest strength, and all it took was money, luck and a Hall of Fame coach.

“It is great to no longer get questions about the offensive line,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during the NFL Annual Meeting. “We have invested a lot in our offensive line going back to 2009-10, and we are reaping the reward of that investment. We have quality players that are in their mid-to-late 20s that know what they are doing and have cohesion.”

The Steelers made an effort to upgrade the position not long after winning their latest Super Bowl, emphasizing it during the next couple of drafts. In reality, they didn't really have much of a choice.

Their franchise quarterback was heading into the prime of his career, and the line was giving up 47, 49 and 50 sacks in Tomlin's first three years. The running game wasn't producing much, either, so the Steelers went heavy on the position in the draft.

They took Maurkice Pouncey in the first round in 2010 and Marcus Gilbert in the second round the next year. They got lucky when David DeCastro fell to them in the first round in 2012 and doubled-down the next round by selecting Mike Adams.

Throw in a gem of an undrafted free agent in Ramon Foster and the signing of free agent left tackle Ryan Harris (he will compete with Alejandro Villanueva in training camp) from the defending champion Broncos, and the Steelers offensive line could be the most talented in the league.

“That's football, isn't it?” Tomlin said. “That's the balance that makes football what it is. It is such a level playing field in terms of resources and opportunities to acquire players that you may have some positions that are strong and have positions that aren't quite as strong.”

As little as 18 months ago, the Steelers were in danger of letting their core unit get away, but refused to let that happen.

They locked up Pouncey for $44 million and Gilbert for $30 million within a span of months. They picked up DeCastro's fifth-year option last year that will pay him $8 million this season. And it is likely DeCastro will sign a long-term deal within the next couple of months.

Earlier in the month, they brought back Foster for nearly $10 million for three years and signed Harris for nearly $2 million a season.

The Steelers have invested about as much as any other NFL team in their offensive line. They have the fifth-largest payroll for 2016 at $33.3 million for their linemen, according to overthecap.com. The Vikings are No. 1 at $44.1 million, with the Seahawks last at $8.7 million.

When healthy, the unit has been good, but the problem has been staying healthy.

They were in 2014 and it showed. The Steelers' 33 sacks allowed were a 10-year low. Their 1,752 rushing yards were the most since 2011. All of this transpired a year after the running game hit rock bottom.

The Steelers' 1,383 rushing yards in 2013 were their fewest in a 16-game season. So was their 24.6 carries per game. Roethlisberger was getting sacked at a record pace until the team went to its no-huddle/quick passing game over the second half to suppress those numbers.

A lot of that was because Pouncey was injured early in the year and, by the end of the season, the Steelers were down to their third center.

Pouncey missed the entire 2015 season, and the Steelers played without the injured Kelvin Beachum at left tackle for half the season, but the line had one of its best years, allowing 32 sacks and 4.4 yards per carry.

Some of that credit goes to offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard for the Houston Oilers, has been a difference maker since joining the staff two years ago.

“Munch is a treat. He is a football lover,” Tomlin said. “He is a teacher. All of us who embrace what we do have a teacher mentality. It is lesson plans for him, not meetings. That's his approach to it along with his general passion and love for the game and his in-helmet perspective and experience aid him in doing his job.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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