Tim Benz: Steelers may lean on the offensive line more than ever
During Pittsburgh Steelers preseason, we have spent a lot of time looking at questions about how the defense can try to create more turnovers.
How the inside linebackers will be deployed.
Whether the running game can become more proficient.
How the passing game will morph with Antonio Brown gone.
What we haven’t talked about very much is the offensive line.
That’s a good thing. Because if there aren’t many questions about that five-man unit, or even the depth players behind the starters, then there isn’t very much to write about.
“Man, I remember sitting here and you (media) guys asking me exactly the opposite of that,” Mike Tomlin said with a laugh during his news conference on Thursday as training camp broke at Saint Vincent College.
Tomlin is on the nose there. From about 2008 until 2013, any success the Steelers had — which included two Super Bowl trips — occurred despite the offensive line being in a constant state of flux because of either inconsistency, injury, instability or ineptitude.
And in some years when the team failed to make the playoffs, all of the above.
But since 2014, the offensive line has — for the most part — been a consistent rock for the organization. The interior core of center Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster has seen some changes over time at tackle as Kelvin Beachum gave way to Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler is set to replace Marcus Gilbert.
But those two were experienced reserves on the team, exemplifying one thing the Steelers have that so few teams do in the NFL up front: depth.
“We invested,” Tomlin emphasized. “We took top-quality young players high in the draft. There was some on-the-job training. That’s how this process goes.”
The franchise didn’t just “invest” in terms of draft capital. They did so in terms of cash, too, even for guys who weren’t high picks such as Pouncey, DeCastro and Gilbert were. Last year, the starting offensive line accounted for five of the 11 most expensive cap hits on the roster, totaling $31.26 million.
This year, even backup guard B.J. Finney is making more than $3 million.
But what that outlay can do for the offensive coaches this year buys something more than talent. It buys peace of mind.
They can easily focus on many moving parts and expanded roles for young players and new acquisitions at running back and wide receiver.
Because, presumably, five-elevenths of their starting offense is a compass that always seems to point true north.
“That’s been the theme since I’ve been here,” DeCastro said. “There’s no clock in your head. You hold your block as long as you can. That’s the only way to be. We take pride in — and enjoy — that.”
Maybe. But based on the roster’s composition elsewhere on that side of the ball, consistent blocking along the line of scrimmage seems all the more critical in 2019.
Consider what the skill-position depth chart looks like after Ben Roethlisberger and Vance McDonald. There is no clear-cut No. 2 tight end. None of the backup quarterbacks have ever started a game. JuJu Smith-Schuster is being asked to become Batman instead of Robin. The rest of the passing tree is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” of guys fighting for promotions.
Running back James Conner is looking to finish a full season uninjured. Behind him, Benny Snell is a rookie and Jaylen Samuels is in just his second year.
Now, more than ever, the Steelers should feel blessed to have that offensive line as a ballast.
“We respect football,” Villanueva said. “We respect the offensive line position. We respect our friendship and how we play together. Fostering that is what we are all about. We play as a group. That matters. We just try to be the best version of ourselves.”
It’s not as if the Steelers front wall is completely unchallenged. Their Yoda-like position coach, Mike Munchak, has moved on to Denver. And Feiler is becoming a full-time starter at right tackle after Gilbert was traded to Arizona.
However, every player I’ve spoken with insists that Munchak’s protege, Shaun Sarrett, hasn’t missed a beat as his replacement. And Feiler has been credited for having one of the best camp performances of any player at Saint Vincent.
“I can’t really listen to that,” Feiler said last week. “I’ve just got to keep coming out every day and working hard and earn the spot.”
For as much as Tomlin was bemused by the inference of solid offensive line play being a foregone conclusion, he probably won’t be laughing soon. DeCastro, Pouncey and Foster all have between seven and 10 years of experience under their belts already. Age will eventually catch up and change will come.
That shouldn’t be the case this year, though. And given all the other questions surrounding this year’s team, Tomlin should be smiling about that.