Coming into the 2016 regular season, there was no doubt about the Pittsburgh Steelers talent on offense.
- And we’re not just talking about the skill-position players, either; the offensive line was regarded by many as solid-to-outstanding.
And, it is a really good line, highlighted by Maurkice Pouncey, the perennial Pro Bowl center who returned to the lineup this season after missing all of 2015 with a leg injury, and right guard David DeCastro, the 2012 first round pick who made his first Pro Bowl a year ago.
When a unit is as talented and highly-regarded as Pittsburgh’s offensive line, you’d expect it to win its share of individual and collective battles. However, after three weeks of the 2016 regular season, you’d have to say that, while the Steelers have an official record of 2-1, their hogs up front, entrusted with protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and opening holes for DeAngelo Williams, have a record of 1-2.
After looking mighty impressive while paving the way for 437 total yards against the Redskins in Week 1–including 290 through the air and 147 on the ground–the line has looked anything but since.
- Yes, it’s true that both the Bengals and Eagles–Pittsburgh’s opponents in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively–have formidable-to-dominant front sevens.
But to steal from former Pirates manager Jim Leyland when he would get sick of the media suggesting his team’s ongoing struggles in the hitting department had to do with facing a run of hot pitchers: yeah, Cincinnati and Philadelphia have great front sevens, but bleep it, we have a good offensive line! Sometimes you have to bleepin beat a great front seven!
- It may be a bit unfair to say Maurkice Pouncey and company were manhandled against the Bengals at Heinz Field on September 18, but at best, it was a stalemate.
While Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once, he was under constant pressure, and his total may have increased by about 75 percent, if he wasn’t so talented at getting rid of the football with defenders trying to pull him to the ground. As for the running game, sure 124 yards looks decent enough, but not when it requires 36 carries to achieve (that’s 3.4 yards per rush–a half a yard below the average that kept Jerome Bettis out of the Hall of Fame for almost a decade).
Make no mistake, the offensive line’s performance this past Sunday against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field wasn’t a stalemate; in-fact, if it was a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight by the third round–and awarded the decision to Fletcher Cox and Co.
Alejandro Villaneuva looked over-matched at times, which may be understandable, given that he didn’t become a starter until the mid-way point of last season. But what about the constant battles that DeCastro and accomplished right tackle Marcus Gilbert lost all afternoon and evening?
It’s fair to point out that Ramon Foster, the solid veteran left guard, exited the Eagles’ game fairly quickly with a chest injury and was replaced by B.J. Finney. On the Steelers official depth chart, Finney is listed as fourth-string at both guard positions. Why that’s noteworthy is because Cody Wallace and Chris Hubbard were both injured last week and couldn’t play. Therefore, that might explain the problems Pittsburgh was having up front this past Sunday.
- But that’s not going to do anyone any good, if Foster, who was described as ‘very questionable’ by head coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly press conference on Tuesday, can’t go against the Chiefs this week.
If Wallace, who has missed the first three games with a knee injury, can return as soon as this week and fill in for a possibly absent Foster, that might go a long way in keeping the line stable. Wallace did an admirable job filling in for Pouncey at center a year ago, and there’s no reason he can’t do the same at left guard if Foster has to miss a game or three.
The Chiefs invade Heinz Field this week, and while they don’t have quite the dominant front seven as recent opponents, it’s still pretty formidable and includes names like Derrick Johnson, Dontari Poe and Tamba Hali.
It would be nice if the Steelers offensive line rose to the challenge and won this next battle.