Steelers' pass protection, run blocking under microscope against Ravens
The running game is the worst since the Great Depression was lingering. Ben Roethlisberger is one of the most-sacked quarterbacks in the league.
Even the pregame warm-ups are proving to be a dangerous place to venture for a Steelers offensive line that began falling apart eight plays into the season and has been in a state of disarray — and, seemingly, disrepair — for weeks.
And now it gets worse.
Up next are the Baltimore Ravens — the team the Steelers (1-4) love to hate — and two of the elite pass rushers in football in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. They are capable of making the best offensive lines look bad, so what might they do to an admittedly work-in-progress unit?
“They play the game as well as anybody in the league right now,” Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum said Wednesday.
And how is that Steelers offensive line playing?
“We know we've got a lot of work to do — a lot of work to do,” center Fernando Velasco said. “Our job is to keep working, keep working, keep staying with it.”
Flash back to the spring. Roethlisberger was predicting this might be the best offensive line to protect him in his 10 years in Pittsburgh. There was even talk the unit of Mike Adams-Ramon Foster-Maurkice Pouncey-David DeCastro-Marcus Gilbert might stay together for years.
It didn't last even one quarter, as Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury caused by a DeCastro block in the opener against Tennessee.
Last week, Adams — the 65th-ranked tackle by Pro Football Focus — went to the bench after a turnstile-like performance against the Minnesota Vikings in which he allowed 3 1⁄2 sacks.
No wonder ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said Roethlisberger has played behind the worst offensive lines of any Super Bowl winner.
But even after the newly acquired Levi Brown went down Sunday with a season-ending triceps injury while warming up, one of the NFL's lowest-ranked lines showed some stability — for the first time this season — during the 19-6 win over the New York Jets.
Roethlisberger was pressured on only nine of 35 dropbacks against the Jets — enough time to allow him to complete 23 of 30 passes for 264 yards.
“We didn't turn the ball over. We didn't have a lot of bad sacks. It definitely helped guys simmer down,” Foster said.
He partly credits new left tackle Beachum for that, saying, “He finished plays. He dogged guys out like he should. I was excited to play beside him.”
Now comes the challenge of the Ravens' defense and of somehow jump-starting a running game that is averaging only 61 yards a game, the second-worst average in franchise history. The Steelers have had only eight runs of 10 yards or more all season and only one of longer than 14 yards.
The only worse rushing season in Pittsburgh was 1935, when a team known then as the Pirates averaged 42.9 yards per game and 1.6 yards per carry (515 yards gained on 326 carries).
If these Steelers are to make something of what looked for weeks to be a lost season, this offensive line understands it needs to stabilize, allow far fewer sacks — Roethlisberger has gone down 18 times — and not require retooling on a near-weekly basis.
And start creating holes that don't last a sliver of a second for rookie Le'Veon Bell.
“The plan is to keep this group together and continue to grow together,” Foster said. “The key is everybody being on the same page and understanding what's in front of us. And not get into a panic about anything.”
Even if a state of panic has been the everyday state of this offensive line.