The time is now for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line. After years of spending high draft picks on the position, this unit is poised to transform from one of the team’s biggest weaknesses to one of its strengths.
Since 2010, the Steelers have spent four high draft picks on offensive linemen.
In 2010, they began to address the line when they selected Maurkice Pouncey in the first round. The very next year they added Marcus Gilbert in the second round and then used their top two selections in 2012 on David DeCastro and Mike Adams.
With established veterans Willie Colon and Max Starks gone, it will be up to these young linemen to help lead the way for the offense.
Inexperience and injuries have slowed the development of these linemen, but this year should be different.
New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. will bring a different approach than former coach Sean Kugler.
Bicknell likes a different style of linemen than Kugler. According to an interview with Bob Labriola of Steelers.com, he wants smart, athletic linemen in the starting lineup.
It’s a combination of all the things I just said. They have to be very smart, because there’s a lot going on. You have five guys who have to be able to mesh together, work together, and it’s one area where you really have to be able to adjust on the fly. The opponent could start out in one defense, shift into another, guys walking around, whatever. You have to prepare, and then you have to be big enough and athletic enough to get the job done, which these days can be difficult. You have these huge three-technique defensive tackles, so you need some good size so as not to be overwhelmed, but you also have to be athletic enough and be able to move your feet to match up with those great athletes on defense.
With a talented group of players, Bicknell will be able to put together a solid unit that should not only be able to pave the way for the ground game, but also keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and healthy.
So what will this line look like? Here is a look at who should be in the starting lineup for the season opener.
Max Starks has been a dependable option at left tackle, but he remains unsigned. Instead, it appears as though the Steelers will go with Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams at left tackle.
I think one of the things that we learned through the trials of the 2012 season is that both of those young men are capable of playing both spots, Tomlin said, according to the club. We will use the spring and the summer to sort out where we play those two at, but both guys have shown that they are capable of being viable left tackles and right tackle-like candidates.
When it comes down to it, expect Gilbert to come out on top as the starter at left tackle.
Gilbert had experience at left tackle in college and has had some success there with the Steelers. He is has decent feet, but lacks the elite athleticism to match up with speed rushers. However, he is still better than Adams in both of these areas.
While he struggles with pass protection, Gilbert is a solid run-blocker and will be the best option on the left side of the line.
The Willie Colon experiment lasted one year and now the Steelers are ready to move on.
Ramon Foster may be the early favorite to start at left guard, but the Steelers need to give serious consideration to shifting David DeCastro to this side of the line.
Foster is a big, powerful blocker who has been a dependable lineman over the years. He can handle the larger defensive linemen, but does not move well side to side.
Historically, the Steelers have put their maulers on the right side of the line and used their athletic linemen on the left side. By starting DeCastro at left guard, they will have an athletic lineman who is capable of pulling to lead the way on run plays.
DeCastro would also be able to provide a boost to the screen game.
As the Steelers continue to implement a quick passing game, they will try to take advantage of the screen pass. DeCastro’s athleticism will allow him to get to the outside to block. Foster just cannot provide that same skill set.
DeCastro is in the mold of PIttsburgh's last great guard—Alan Faneca—and he can have the same type of impact if he makes the move this season.
Maurkice Pouncey is the unquestioned starter at center.
He is the most athletic lineman on the team and should benefit from playing next to a healthy DeCastro this season.
These two players will provide the Steelers with two linemen who can pull to either side. This will help reinvigorate the ground game.
Pouncey is powerful enough to handle the massive nose tackles that he must go up against, but athletic enough to fire off the line of scrimmage and get to the second level of defenders.
No one on the offensive line plays as nasty as Pouncey and he will set the tone as the leader of the unit this season. As long as he stays healthy, he will be poised for an outstanding season.
The Steelers should take advantage of the various types of talent that they have to work with and create a powerful right side of the offensive line.
By shifting DeCastro to the left side, Foster can return to the right side where he has worked as the primary starter since 2010.
At this position Foster can use his size and power to open up holes in the ground game. He would be playing next to Mike Adams, who may be the team’s best run blocker.
Having a powerful right side of the line with a mobile left guard is when the Steelers are at their best. There will be a noticeable difference when running the football and it should once again become a strength.
The drafting of Le’Veon Bell has indicated that the Steelers are taking their ground attack seriously. They will look to re-establish a power ground attack to complement their passing game. By using Foster on the right side, the Steelers will set themselves up for success.
Some may believe that Mike Adams is destined for the left tackle position, but not here.
To say Adams struggled at the position last season would be a vast understatement. He was completely overwhelmed. This should not have been a surprise.
Adams came into the NFL lacking the necessary quickness and footwork to play the left side. He will consistently struggle with speed rushers and get Roethlisberger killed.
Things are much different on the right side.
While at right tackle, Adams isn’t under as much pressure protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side. The Steelers can also take advantage of his run-blocking abilities.
Once Adams locks his arms on a defender, it is all over. He is dominant when blocking for the ground game. There was a noticeable difference in this area the instant he entered the starting lineup at right tackle last season.
It was no mistake that their best rushing performances occurred when Adams was on the field. This included a three-game stretch in which the Steelers had a 100-yard rusher.
Adams may not be the long-term answer at left tackle, but the value he brings on the right side as a dominant run blocker is just as important.