Mixed results for Steelers new offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett
By replacing such a decorated position coach in Mike Munchak, Shaun Sarrett faced inevitable comparisons to his Hall of Fame predecessor.
Six games into his tenure as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach, Sarrett has enjoyed a seamless transition in the unit’s pass protection, but he’s also received less-than-favorable results in the group’s run blocking.
While the Steelers line has allowed an NFL-low five sacks, the running game ranks No. 28 in the league and it took until the sixth game to produce a 100-yard effort — as a team.
Sarrett is willing to accept the good and the bad that comes with his elevated role on Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff. And he has been more than happy to carry on the standard created by Munchak, whose five-year tenure ended in January when he made a lateral move to the Denver Broncos.
“I think we’re ready for games,” Sarrett said last week while the Steelers were on their bye. “I don’t think the process has changed. We’re doing the same things even from when Munch was here. I’ve maybe tweaked a few things here and there, but the process is still the same. We’re doing the things we need to do. We just need to get better at it.”
That’s no more true than in the offensive line’s run blocking. James Conner rushed for 973 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season, his first as a starter. This year, Conner is averaging 3.2 yards per attempt and has 235 yards, which ranked No. 36 heading into Week 7. Conner is on pace to gain about 627 yards for the season.
“There have been some different scenarios,” Sarrett said. “We haven’t meshed. It’s been one of those deals. The answer is to continue to work on it and get better at it.”
The issues with the running game are unexpected considering that 80% of the starters on the line — center Maurkice Pouncey, guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva — have played together since 2015. And Matt Feiler, in his first full season as the starting right tackle, made 10 starts last season.
Yet, the Steelers, even factoring in the 124 rushing yards against the Chargers, are averaging 76.5 yards per game and 3.5 per carry, the lowest average since 2013 — the year before Munchak arrived.
“Obviously, we miss him,” Villanueva said. “It’s difficult to replicate someone like Munch because he’s got so much experience and everybody has so much respect for what he says. He’s very insightful and has gone through so many lessons that as you get older, it’s easier to rely on his teachings.”
Sarrett joined the Steelers in 2012 as an offensive assistant and was promoted to assistant offensive line coach in 2018.
“Sarrett doesn’t have that (experience), but we can help each other out and cover for the things that we might miss from Munch,” Villanueva said. “He’s done a phenomenal job making sure we’re ready to play every week. You cannot ask for anything more from a coach.”
One carryover from the Munchak regime has been the offensive line’s pass-blocking ability. From 2016-18, the Steelers allowed 23 sacks per season, the second-best average in the NFL. Through six games, whether it has been Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges under center, the Steelers have yielded fewer sacks than any other NFL team.
In the past three games — all played without Roethlisberger — the line has given up just one sack. Against the Cincinnati Bengals and Chargers, Rudolph and Hodges, respectively, made it through the game without being hit once.
“We are built to pass protect,” Villanueva said. “It is the thing that Munch came here and harped on for 5-6 years. So we have a lot of continuity on the offensive line that allows for less communication. You expect you’ll have less errors and mistakes.”
Sarrett’s task after the bye week will be getting the offensive line to repeat its performance against the Chargers when the Steelers controlled the clock with their best rushing performance of the season. The next test comes Oct. 28 against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field.
“It’s something we take pride in,” Sarrett said. “We continue to work at it. Like last week, all of a sudden it meshed. We’ll continue to run the same plays, and we’ll continue to get better at them.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .