Pittsburgh Steelers‘ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 14 times through seven games of the 2012 NFL regular season. You don’t need to be a mathematician to realize that that is a measly two sacks per game. But you do need to be a football fan to understand that that is a very significant number.
A combination of the Steelers’ recent investment in talented offensive linemen and a new approach from offensive coordinator Todd Haley, has dramatically improved the efficiency of the team’s pass protection. In the three regular seasons prior to this one, the Steelers have given up 135 sacks. That averages out to be 45 sacks over each 16 game season and 2.8 sacks per game. Even more significantly, the Steelers gave up eight sacks in their first two games, which means that they have given up only five altogether in the five games since then. Included in that stretch are two games when Roethlisberger’s jersey was kept completely clean, as he wasn’t sacked against the Washington Redskins or Philadelphia Eagles.
While the Steelers’ offensive line has improved as a pass protecting unit, it is still no better than average. There is still a ways to go for the group, but also many reasons to believe that they can max out and become one of the better offensive lines in the whole league.
Since the 2010 NFL draft, the Steelers have selected no less than seven offensive linemen in the draft itself and evaluated countless more as undrafted free agents. Of those who were lucky enough to be drafted, four were taken within the first two rounds of their respective drafts. Maurkice Pouncey, 2010, Marcus Gilbert, 2011, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, 2012, were each taken no later than 63rd overall.
Even though they only drafted Pouncey, and tackle Chris Scott in the fifth round in 2010, the Steelers placed an emphasis on fixing their offensive line that year. In 2010, they hired former Buffalo Bills‘ offensive line coach Sean Kugler. Kugler’s units in Buffalo had been underwhelming to say the least from a statistical point of view, but he had gotten the most out of what little talent was available to him. Kugler was the type of coach who could improve individuals who were willing to learn. He didn’t bring any special technique or play designs, he simply understood how to manage personalities and work with players.
Initially Kugler was dealt a cruel blow. Willie Colon, a then right tackle and by far and away the team’s most talented lineman, was lost for the season before playing a single game. With a below average group of collective talent to work with, in spite of an outstanding rookie season from Pouncey, Kugler could only work on damage limitation as the team made it to a Super Bowl.
The following season saw Gilbert arrive in the draft, but Colon was lost again for the year, managing just one game this time around. The silver lining of Colon’s injury was that it allowed Gilbert to step into a starting spot at right tackle, and excel. With Gilbert and Pouncey in place, the Steelers brought in a top rated prospect at guard, DeCastro, and talented tackle, Adams, to move Kugler one step closer to having that talent he desired.
Through draft picks and players recovering from injury, Kugler’s real work could finally begin this year. After two seasons in the job, Kugler entered this season with the finishing line in sight. The potential for an offensive line that could compete with the best was on the roster.
Longtime left tackle Max Starks returned from a torn ACL to start the season. Colon is healthy and now starting at left guard. Pouncey continues to fight through performance and injury inconsistencies, but remains a very talented player. DeCastro tore his ACL before the start of the season but is expected to be back before the end of the season. Gilbert entered the season as a starter, but lost his place through injury to the rookie Adams.
Recovering from a severe knee injury such as a torn ACL can take time. Starks’ recovery has been impressive considering he didn’t miss a single game. Even though he has been on the field all season, the impression is that he has been somewhat limited on the field. Whether it was due to discomfort or hesitation, emanating from a simple lack of trust in his knee, Starks has slowly but surely been improving on the field from week-to-week.
Exactly the same thing can be said about Colon, but for slightly different reasons.
Colon suffered a torn Achilles two years ago and tore a pectoral muscle at the beginning of last season. Undoubtedly two years out of football has affected his early season performances this year, but also he has been adjusting to a completely new role. Colon was always considered to be the perfect prospect to play guard, but that didn’t mean that he would seamlessly transition from tackle to guard in the off-season. Early on Colon looked lost. He gave up a sack on opening night in Denver, committed two penalties and couldn’t make an impact as a run blocker. However, since then he has been a force in the running game and been relatively safe in pass protection, outside of giving up two sacks to the Cincinnati Bengals in a game when he played quite well outside of those plays. Colon has the potential to be a special guard, he should continue to improve as the season goes on.
At center, it is difficult to say that Pouncey will improve because he needs to stay healthy. Pouncey has played well for the most part this year, but his track record of getting minor injuries is becoming a major problem. He can’t continue to miss time because it is costing him in his development. Pouncey may be in his third season, but he still has a bit to learn and a ways to develop to truly reach his full potential.
DeCastro was expected to be the starting right guard in Pittsburgh from Week 1 of his rookie season, but his torn ACL reinserted Ramon Foster. Foster was a former starter and undrafted tackle out of Tennessee who hasn’t had an impressive season. Once DeCastro is healthy, he should take over the starting role. While it will be difficult for the rookie initially, coming off such a severe injury, his talent is such that he should still be able to contribute late in the season and improve the right guard position.
That leaves the Steelers with just a right tackle spot to settle on. The right tackle position in Pittsburgh right now is a little bit unclear. Gilbert, the incumbent starter since last season, was having a solid season before a foot injury sidelined him. While the second year player was on the sidelines, rookie Adams successfully stepped into his spot. Adams has outperformed Gilbert to the point that the former starter will need to win his job back opposed to have it handed to him. Both Gilbert and Adams are developing players who should improve as their careers, and in turn their seasons, continue.
Having two tackles in good form could potentially allow the team to move one inside to right guard if Foster continues to struggle, but that is a very unlikely scenario.
Continuity is a very important aspect of team offensive line play. The Steelers need to focus on developing and maintaining that as the season wears on,but from an individual position point of view, they should only get better between now and the playoffs.
At the very least, Todd Haley has proven to be stubborn enough that he won’t be altering his scheme or play-calling tendencies anytime soon. So that shouldn’t be an issue.
The Steelers’ pass protection is easily tracked with the statistics, but not until Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer are healthy together in the backfield will we be able to see the fruits of their labor in the running game. Once Dwyer and Mendenhall can get on the field consistently, and DeCastro returns to give the team two pulling, mauling guards, the Steelers’ offense could catch fire.
Catch fire at just the right time too.
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, Irishcentral, The Guardian, Balls.ie and FootballGuys. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf