Season after season, fixing the problems on the offensive line have been the Pittsburgh Steelers' number one priority. And for season after season, the fixes don't seem to completely take hold, resulting in quarterback sacks, stalled drives and repeated injuries to Ben Roethlisberger.
This crisis is not yet over for the Steelers, as evidenced by their two preseason losses, the most recent coming Monday night against the Washington Redskins.
Though what we've seen out of Pittsburgh's offense during these two games isn't a complete picture of what they have planned for the 2013 season, it's no less distressing. In the 24-13 loss to the Redskins, Roethlisberger's limited time on the field yielded two punts, a pick-six and a field goal drive.
The offensive line can be credited for a lot of his struggles, particularly center Maurkice Pouncey who was manhandled by Washington nose tackle Barry Cofield.
So far this preseason, the Steelers have given up nine sacks, three quarterback hits and 21 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Out of the 12 offensive linemen who have played snaps thus far, the highest grade given by Pro Football Focus has been to guard David DeCastro, at +2.6 (for reference, their highest graded overall guard this preseason is Chicago's Kyle Long at +8.0, their top-rated offensive tackle is New Orleans' Bryce Harris at +5.2 and their top center is Carolina's Ryan Kalil at +3.1).
Further, DeCastro's grade is mostly influenced by how well he's performed in run-blocking. His pass protection is just as marginal as his contemporaries' on the line.
Another issue with the Steelers' ability to keep their QB Roethlisberger protected is that tight end Heath Miller has not been on the field. That means second-year player David Paulson has taken up his duties, including pass protection.
Paulson has clearly struggled, getting knocked over by both linebackers and defensive linemen, and struggling to create leverage. Though Paulson hasn't been credited with a sack, he's allowed one hit and one hurry in his 79 snaps.
With the Steelers still tweaking their run game—rookie and assumed starter Le'Veon Bell exited Monday's game with a foot injury that could be quite serious—they must be able to produce via the pass.
However, Roethlisberger isn't being given enough time to throw even shallow passes and screens, nor are his backups Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones.
Trying to throw more quickly isn't alleviating the defensive pressure, as evidenced by Ryan Kerrigan's interception for a touchdown on Monday—he beat right tackle Marcus Gilbert handily to get to the football.
It's hard to look at Pittsburgh's offensive line over the past two weeks and see many bright spots. And the worse they perform, the worse things will be for Roethlisberger and the offense as a whole.
The lack of effective pass protection prevents plays from working and, at worst, results in injury. Roethlisberger has only one full, 16-game season to his name; it's hard to see him making it through every game this year with his line performing as it has thus far in the preseason.
Further, it's not just the lack of protection that is threatening the Steelers' ability to move the ball—it's also a lack of discipline. Penalties were common in the loss at Washington, the majority of which were committed by the offensive line. Pouncey netted one for illegal hands to the face on Cofield, left tackle Mike Adams had both illegal formation and holding penalties and DeCastro was also called for holding.
The result of these penalties: Two Emmanuel Sanders first-down catches that were called back, a good check-down throw to running back Baron Batch that was called back and a hit on Roethlisberger for no reason.
Effective drives were killed by these penalties, and this will keep happening if the poor O-line play continues.
It's simple—to score points in the NFL, quarterbacks and running backs both need to be able to move the ball down the field. That means the offensive line needs to be a well-oiled machine, equipped with the talent to handle both run-blocking and pass protection. We've yet to see this from the Steelers so far this preseason.
Though Roethlisberger is known for handling breakdowns in protection in order to extend plays, that can't be the only source of positive yardage for Pittsburgh. It's also a way to get Roethlisberger hurt.
This most-disappointing area of the Steelers offense was supposed to be—finally—fixed this year. The linemen are younger and more athletic than their previous versions, but the result appears to be the same—allowing pressure on the quarterback.
If this doesn't get righted, and soon, it may be a long, painful season for the Steelers yet again.