Kevin Gorman: Steelers find security not in superstars but by drawing a line
So much of the hoopla surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers has been about the All-Pros they lost in the offseason, Le’Veon Bell to free agency and Antonio Brown through a trade.
While they were two of the NFL’s most prolific players at their respective positions, the Steelers believed that they could be replaced from within. As Bell sat out last season in a franchise-tag dispute, James Conner became a Pro Bowl back. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who led the Steelers in receptions and yards last season, becomes the top target.
No one is talking about how the Steelers return their entire starting offensive line — including Pro Bowl picks in left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro — and why that might be their biggest edge in the season opener Sunday night against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
“I’ll talk about it,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger offered, “because that’s why I feel comfortable with what we’ve got — those guys. Those guys are my comfort blanket. They make me feel comfortable. They’re the reason I’m back. It’s almost to the point to where some people take it for granted. I don’t … because they’re special. Not many quarterbacks — or teams — get to keep that group together like we have for as many years as we have. Obviously, you lose a piece here or there but it stays together.”
Tom Brady wishes he could say the same.
Not only did the Patriots lose their left tackle when Trent Brown signed a four-year, $66-million free-agent contract with the Oakland Raiders, but center David Andrews is out for the season with blood clots in his lungs. Those are only the two most important positions on the offensive line. The Patriots are expected to start 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who missed last season with a torn Achilles, at left tackle and Ted Karras at center.
Not to suggest the Patriots panicked, but they traded for three offensive linemen in a three-day span in the final week of the preseason. They acquired Korey Cunningham from Arizona and Jermaine Eluemunor from Baltimore on Aug. 29 and Russell Bodine from Buffalo on Aug. 31.
That gives the Steelers an obvious edge in consistency and continuity, as their only change in the front five came when they traded right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who had started 87 games over eight seasons, to the Cardinals. But injuries and a suspension had limited Gilbert to 12 games in 2017 and ‘18, only one more than his replacement, Matt Feiler.
“It’s one of those things you don’t take for granted. It’s a special group, and I’m proud to be a part of it for so long,” said DeCastro, a two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl selection. “We’ve played a lot of ball together. We’ve got to take pride in it. We’ve been doing it for a long time. Most of us are compensated pretty well, so we have that on our shoulders.”
What the Steelers don’t have is Mike Munchak, the Hall of Famer who molded the unit into one of the league’s best. When he left to become offensive line coach for the Denver Broncos, the Steelers promoted Shaun Sarrett. That’s where the Patriots have an advantage, as line coach Dante Scarnecchia has been in his role since 1999. New England ranked third in the NFL in sacks allowed (21) last season, one spot ahead of the Steelers (24).
That type of protection is invaluable not only to a quarterback’s peace of mind but to Roethlisberger’s leading the league in completions, attempts and passing yards last season and setting a career-high in touchdowns.
“We communicate so well that if I miss something they’re going to pick it up for me,” Roethlisberger said of his linemen. “It’s a security blanket, as much as having a Heath Miller or Vance (McDonald) — someone you can trust to throw the ball to — that you know they’re going to pick it up for you.”
If allowing Roethlisberger to be sacked only once in completing 22 of 34 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the 17-10 victory over the Patriots last December at Heinz Field wasn’t evidence enough, the fingerprints of the Steelers’ offensive line were all over the 142-yard rushing performance by backup running back Jaylen Samuels in his first career start.
“The linemen always get overlooked,” Samuels said. “When you’re watching football, everybody just sees the big plays. Everybody is just seeing the quarterback making a great throw and the wide receiver making a great catch. Nobody sees the line protecting, just to get that ball off. The line is going to do what they do. They’re going to block. They’re going to handle their assignments. We’ve just got to put the ball in the right place and make guys miss. We’ve got to make the plays when they come.”
The Steelers still have to prove they can make plays without the benefit of Bell and especially Brown. The onus is on an offensive line that wants to live up to its reputation and provide a return on investment, as the Steelers signed Foster to a two-year contract and Pouncey to a two-year extension to keep the unit intact for the next two seasons.
“I think teams across the world are starting to realize that you’re as good as your offensive line is,” Foster said. “I say that in a sense that you’ve got to make sure you protect the guy who’s throwing the ball to the guys that are all-world on the outside. If you can’t block for an All-Pro running back or you can’t protect an All-Pro quarterback, there’s nothing else you can do.”
Roethlisberger will take comfort in the protection of his security blanket, a five-man front he doesn’t take for granted.
This is the season the Steelers scratched the superstars and drew a line.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .