Steelers' offensive line bonding into NFL's best
The Pittsburgh Steelers just piled up 52 points, their highest total in 34 years. Seven players scored touchdowns, Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes and compiled the fourth perfect passer rating of his career, and the running game contributed 138 yards.
It was an all-around dominating performance on offense, and the team’s franchise quarterback made sure nobody forgot about the contributions of the five players blocking for him.
“It all starts up front,” Roethlisberger said Thursday after the Steelers dismantled the Carolina Panthers, 52-21, for their fifth consecutive win. “You can say what you want about the skill guys, but we’re nothing without them up front.”
Roethlisberger touting his offensive linemen is hardly new. He customarily credits his blockers when dishing out reasons for the offense’s success. It’s just that now whenever Roethlisberger calls his linemen the best in the NFL, there’s few who can argue with him.
• In the past six games, Roethlisberger has been sacked four times, and one of those came on the last offensive play at Baltimore when he gave himself up to allow the clock to continue running. The Steelers are on pace to allow fewer than 25 sacks for a third consecutive season.
• James Conner, stepping in for the absent Le’Veon Bell, has four 100-yard rushing games, including three in a row during a winning streak that has catapulted the Steelers from last to first in the AFC North with a 6-2-1 record.
• Roethlisberger has completed 66 percent of his passes, his best percentage in three years, he’s on pace to reach 5,000 yards for the first time in his 15-year career and set a career best in touchdown passes. He has thrown one interception in his past four games.
“The offensive line has been playing spectacular,” Roethlisberger said after the Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens, 23-16, on Nov. 4. “Everything you’re asking them to do, blocking in the pass game and the run game, opening holes against the No. 1 defense in the world, there’s a reason they are that good.
“You can say what you want about James and the running game, but it starts up front. We go as those guys go.”
The Steelers’ O-line is starting to get national recognition. Pro Football Focus ranked it as the best in the NFL. And that pronouncement came after a few days before the Steelers played the Panthers.
By comparison, Pro Football Focus had the Steelers linemen ranked No. 13 collectively just four weeks earlier.
“Those guys have been together for a long time,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “They are quality players. They have continuity in terms of coaching. (Offensive line coach Mike) Munchak has been with them for a number of years. I think there are some very tangible reasons why things have developed for them, and it creates and environment where you guys can ascend, can grow and get better.”
The quintet of Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert is in its fourth season playing together. Yet, it’s when injuries test the line’s strength that the unit bands stronger.
Matt Feiler is the latest example of the depth the Steelers have created. A guard by trade, Feiler has started four games this season, including the past three in a row for an injured Gilbert at right tackle. He joins B.J. Finney, who has started twice this season at guard, as valuable backups. Before that, the veteran backup was Chris Hubbard.
“It’s critical,” Tomlin said of the line’s depth. “It’s how we’re built. It’s what we expect, and (Feiler) is just the latest example of a guy that is meeting that expectation.”
The bond among offensive linemen on a football team is unique, and the Steelers are no different. The group that meshes so seamlessly on the field socializes off it, with the linemen spending Thursday nights together during the season, gathering for a meal and preparing for that weekend’s game.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said the camaraderie all begins in the position room.
“You see the cohesiveness of the group,” Fichtner said. “That’s one of the areas where they’re so tight, a tight-knit group, and the communication has to be so really good. You’ve got to have great communication there.
“You’re talking every play. You’re talking to your buddy. You’re working with your buddy on twists, and all these different things. And they do a great job of that because I really believe they enjoy being in that room.
“They’d stay there probably overnight if they could.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.