The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys are two NFL franchises with some of the most storied offensive lines in history. For each team, toughness and brute force up front have long been core parts of their offensive identities. That’s why last season’s lackluster performances from both teams’ O-lines was surprising in Pittsburgh and Dallas.
Obviously, both teams need to limit their struggles on the offensive line to be more successful in 2022 but it’s the Steelers who could be in a lot more trouble as things stand now.
Looking at each team’s peaks up front can help us contextualize the importance of the unit in both of their histories.
For the Steelers, their mid-1970s run of four Super Bowls in six years was in large part thanks to Pittsburgh’s dominance in the trenches. Obviously, they had the “Steel Curtain” defensive line, but the guys on the other side of the ball kept quarterback Terry Bradshaw upright and let running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier thrive.
In Dallas, the 1990s were a time of massive success on the offensive side of the ball, largely because that offensive line was one of the best in NFL history. They’re a big reason Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith was putting up video game numbers so early in his career.
But we don’t have to even look back that far to see a relative peak from both the Steelers and the Cowboys. As recently as the mid-2010s, Dallas and Pittsburgh had two of the strongest offensive lines in the NFL, and it was visible in their offensive success.
Running back Le’Veon Bell can thank the Steelers’ strong offensive line for his early success. When he was named the first-team All-Pro running back in 2017, three of the five starting offensive linemen on that team—tackle Alejandro Villanueva, guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey—were Pro Bowlers. It’s not a coincidence that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went on a stretch of four straight Pro Bowls from 2014 to 2017 too.
Meanwhile in Dallas, their offensive line was headlined by three guys that were arguably the best at their respective positions at the time: center Travis Frederick, guard Zack Martin and tackle Tyron Smith. Throw in La’el Collins, who was slotted in at left guard to start his career, and veteran Doug Free at right tackle, and you’ve got an incredibly strong front five.
It paid dividends as running back Ezekiel Elliott got off to a red-hot start to his career with two Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods in his first three years in the NFL. Quarterback Dak Prescott won Offensive Rookie of the Year (just over Elliott) in 2016 and earned himself two Pro Bowl nominations in the same three-year period.
In just a few years though, both teams have seen several changes and a decline in play from their big men up front. It’s gotten to the point where, in 2021, both the Cowboys and Steelers had offensive lines that held each team back from finding more success on offense.
Dallas ranked in the bottom 10 in pass-block win rate according to ESPN, and indeed, the offensive line struggled to hold off defenders even when teams stopped blitzing extra pass rushers. Prescott would often have to run around in the pocket to avoid defenders—even on just four-man rushes—and not have enough time to let plays develop downfield. When the Cowboys tried to run the ball instead, Elliott didn’t have the holes to run through and finished the second half with a negative success rate.
Fortunately for Dallas, the bad offensive line play can be partially attributed to bad injury luck and the resulting need to rotate players in on the line all year. Having a fully healthy Tyron Smith on the left side with rookie Tyler Smith as Zack Martin anchors the right side next to a developing tackle in Terence Steele will be huge. The Cowboys have plenty of reason to believe that the 2022 season will bring a leap forward in offensive line play.
For the Steelers, that doesn’t seem as likely.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line was in the bottom three of the NFL in both pass-block and run-block win rates in 2021. Running back Najee Harris had to fight for every yard last year, and Roethlisberger had to rely on his quick release to avoid taking sacks. It’s not surprising that the Steelers ranked in the bottom three in rushing yards per game (91.1), the bottom five in rush yards per attempt (3.8) and in the bottom half of NFL teams in sacks allowed (38).
That wasn’t because they were dealing with injuries or a need to rely on rotational players. Pittsburgh just didn’t have a lot of talent up front and they got exposed for it on a nearly weekly basis.
While the Steelers did bring in two interior O-linemen in free agency—Mason Cole and James Daniels—it’s easy to wonder whether that will be enough. They’re not going to have a veteran quarterback with a quick release time who can make the offensive line look better by getting the ball out before pressure can arrive. Instead, they’ll have either Mitchell Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett starting under center in 2022.
Pittsburgh needs to figure out their offensive line situation, and fast, so that their quarterbacks have a fair chance to show they can succeed as Roethlisberger’s successor. It would also allow their young running back a chance to show that his true potential is even higher than what he showed in an already impressive rookie season with a stronger line blocking for him.
If they don’t figure out their issues, a bad offensive line is often the root cause of offensive struggles. Without improvements up front, the Steelers will have a hard time both finding their offensive identity and returning to the playoffs.
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