Maybe this will finally be the year that the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line becomes one of the strengths of the team.
It has been a concern every offseason, but with young talent in place and a new coach ready to lead them, Pittsburgh’s offensive line appears to be primed to take that next step to greatness.
Not only is the performance of the offensive line a key to establishing a strong running game and keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright, but it will be an instrumental factor in opening up the entire offense.
The line finally showed some improvement in 2012 as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked only on 6.3 percent of his pass attempts—the lowest rate of his career.
The running game appeared to be revived when Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman combined for three consecutive individual 100-yard rushing performances in the middle of the season.
However, this success was only a flash in the pan as the ground game only picked up 1,537 yards while averaging 3.7 yards per carry for the season. Those numbers were down from 1,903 yards the previous year, while the team had an average of 4.4 yards per carry.
Injuries to the offensive line were a major part of this as was the inexperience of several linemen, but changes to the line could boost the performance of the line and the offense as a whole in 2013.
DeCastro and Adams will return to health as they will man down the right side of the line at guard and tackle respectively.
With Marcus Gilbert likely at left tackle in place of free agent Max Starks and Maurkice Pouncey at center, the Steelers have a lot of quality, young talent ready to elevate their game.
There could even be a change at left guard if the Steelers decide to release Willie Colon.
Kelvin Beachum, who played very well at right tackle last season, would be a candidate to earn the starting job at left guard.
Whether Beachum starts or not, the Steelers have three athletic linemen with Pouncey, DeCastro and Adams. If Gilbert gets into better shape, he would fit the bill as well.
This is particularly important as the Steelers transition to new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.
Bicknell told Bob Labriola of Steelers.com that he wants smart, athletic linemen that can be a force in the ground game.
In fact, Bicknell believes that rushing yards is a good measure on the performance of the line and based on his performance with Kansas City’s line, Bicknell has done a fine job.
With Bicknell putting emphasis on quick, athletic linemen, the Steelers will likely shift to more of a zone-blocking scheme that will develop based on the running back’s talents.
The Steelers will likely bring back Dwyer and Redman, but they are also expected to invest a draft pick in a potential workhorse back.
Ideally, the Steelers will land a running back between the second and fourth round that can develop into an every-down back.
Pittsburgh has a number of options in the draft to find a power back or more of a well-rounded back who can run both inside and outside.
Having a strong presence at running back, but more important an offensive that can win the battle in the trenches will greatly benefit the red-zone offense.
Having the ability to run the ball near the goal line really opens things up for the offense. Passing lanes get tight and if a team is forced to throw the ball, things are much easier to defend for the defense.
The inability to run the ball has hurt the Steelers in this area, thus their middle-of-the-pack red-zone production.
Last season, the Steelers scored on 55.10 percent of their red zone attempts in 2012 compared to 50.91 percent in 2011. While that was an improvement, the Steelers need to continue to improve upon these numbers.
Getting into the top 10 in scoring will greatly benefit the Steelers and that all starts up front.
But the line isn’t limited to boosting the ground game. A strong performance by the line will also help the passing attack.
Not only should the protection for Roethlisberger improve, but by becoming a better team on the ground, teams will be forced to play the run and then the Steelers can implement a vertical attack.
It would almost be a return to the offensive scheme early in Roethlisberger’s career when the Steelers used the run to set up the pass.
While the Steelers will not become a predominantly running team, a strong running game will enable Haley and Roethlisberger to utilize the play-action pass.
Roethlisberger has played well using the play action as well as throwing on the move. Being able to run the ball will back off defenses and give him time to look downfield.
Besides this, when Roethlisberger has time to throw, he can use the pump fake—and no one does it better.
Roethlisberger loves looking downfield for the big play, and while he can effectively run a short passing attack, Haley should not limit Roethlisberger from playing to his strengths.
The only way that the Steelers can get back to using Roethlisberger’s strengths is by providing him with adequate protection up front.
Mike Wallace likely won’t be there as the top deep threat and Heath Miller will be coming off of an ACL tear, leaving the Steelers with limited weapons—unless they find some new ones in the draft.
It has become clear for the Steelers that great weapons on offense can’t always overcome poor offensive line play. However, great line play can overcome average weapons.
Pittsburgh needs to get great line play in 2013 and if they do, the offense should take a big step forward.