Tim Benz: Steelers’ offensive line might not be as impressive as you think | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Steelers’ offensive line might not be as impressive as you think

Tim Benz
Chaz Palla
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (left) and guard Ramon Foster will line up next to each other again next season.

You probably liked the numbers ESPN.com’s Brian Burke gave us about the Steelers pass-rush Thursday. So you are inclined to believe them.

You may not like what he has to say about the Steelers’ offensive line, so these stats you’ll probably want to dismiss.

That’s usually how it works when it comes to a lot of the deep-dive analytics in sports: Give me the data that supports my preconceived theory, and I’ll trumpet your research to the masses.

The results that disprove what I prefer to believe, though?

Eh, they are just empty numbers that “don’t reflect the true story.”

That seems to be how we the public react to lots of other topics like corsi in hockey, WAR in baseball, and you know … climate change.

Now we are talking about the Steelers’ offensive line, though. So this is much more important.

The Steelers’ offensive line was vilified in Pittsburgh as recently as 2013. Since then, the unit has been rebuilt into what has been perceived to be a constant, consistently high-performing unit beloved by the fan base.

Le’Veon Bell became an All-Pro running back behind that unit. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s sack total dipped from 42 in 2013 to an average of 23 over the five seasons since then.

However, according to what Burke found via the NFL’s Next Gen Stats player-tracking data, 2018 was just an average season for the Steelers’ offensive line when it came to pass protection.

On the surface, Roethlisberger’s 24 sacks were the most since 33 in 2014. Then again, his attempts (699) were a career high. So that translates to a “sacked rate” for Roethlisberger of just 3.43%. Only the Colts’ and Patriots’ offensive lines were better in that category in 2018.

However, receivers getting open quickly and quarterbacks releasing the ball or eluding the rush come into play heavily in that stat, too.

According to the NFL player-tracking data, the Steelers’ offensive line was much more toward the middle of the pack when it came to winning one-on-one pass-protection battles.

“From a scale of 1-10, the Steelers were pretty much a 5 in terms of pass blocking last year,” Burke said.

As we discussed when looking at the Steelers’ pass-rush effectiveness — sixth in the NFL in 2018 according to Burke — Next Gen Stats uses 2.5 seconds to grant a win or a loss in pass-blocking. That’s been determined to be the average time for a quarterback to release from the snap.

“If the lineman can sustain a block for more than 2.5 seconds, that’s determined to be a pass-block win,” Burke explained.

He went on to say that offensive linemen win at an 80% clip. Among the Steelers starters, his study revealed that Maurkice Pouncey, David Decastro and Alejandro Villanueva were between 80-83%. Matt Feiler and Ramon Foster were between 73-74%.

“They have a couple of very solid players along the offensive line,” Burke stated. “The problem is they have a couple of weak spots.”

Again, this is strictly about pass-blocking. So, especially in the cases of Feiler and Foster, their run-blocking skills are not being taken into account.

Other variables not discussed in the breakdown are how often double teams come into play, the pass-blocking schemes employed, and screen passes where linemen may jump down field to block.

In fact, screens were dismissed entirely.

Pro Football Focus had a vastly different take on the Steelers’ offensive front, rating the unit the best in the NFL in terms of preventing pressures.

Believe what you want. The Steelers seem to be leaning toward the second opinion as the entire offensive line — aside from the traded Marcus Gilbert — has been retained from last year. Even backups Jerald Hawkins, Chuks Okorafor and B.J. Finney were retained. And Foster was kept in free agency as well.

With all the other concerns surrounding the Steelers, the pass-blocking seems to be off the radar as a worry for the front office, even if some stats suggest otherwise.

Now, as for climate change …

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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