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NFL Draft

Steelers’ Offensive Line Playing Well Despite Injuries

  • The Draft Network
  • September 27, 2020
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We are now through three weeks of the NFL season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves sitting at 3-0. A huge reason for the Steelers' success is their offense, which has established itself to be one of the most balanced units in the entire NFL. Prior to their game against the Houston Texans, the offense ranked in the top 13 in both rushing yards per game and passing yards per game, a ranking that is sure to go up after the Steelers accumulated 387 yards of offense in Sunday’s game.

After last season, which saw the Steelers finish 32nd in passing yards per game, and 29th in rushing yards per game, the early success of this year's team is a very welcomed sight. Last week, I wrote about the play of Ben Roethlisberger and how well he has performed after returning from a season-ending elbow injury. This week, I’d like to discuss the Steelers offensive line, and how the mixture of old established veterans and talented young players has come together to give the Steelers one of the better units in the NFL. 

Offseason Changes

Outside of the health of Roethlisberger, the Steelers' offensive line was one of the team’s biggest question marks heading into the season. What normally is a top-five unit in the NFL, the group suffered a huge loss when left guard Ramon Foster retired in the offseason. Foster was a pillar for the Steelers, having started at left guard since 2011. The question the Steelers had to answer was quite simple: who steps in for Foster? 

Pittsburgh had a couple of options when it came to filling their hole at left guard. The team signed interior swing offensive lineman Stefan Wisniewski who came over from Kansas City in the offseason. Wisniewski is a capable starter at left guard but is best suited as the team’s top interior backup. Pittsburgh could have moved 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler inside to left guard, a position he played in 2017. Feiler is an extremely tough player with very good strength but lacks athleticism and length. Feiler profiles better inside, although he has played well at right tackle the past two seasons. The team drafted guard Kevin Dodson from University of Lafayette in the fourth round as another potential option. Ultimately, the team elected to move Feiler inside, and allowed 2017 fourth-round pick Zach Banner and 2018 third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to battle it out for the right tackle spot, a battle Banner ultimately won in camp. 

Success despite injuries in 2020

Despite the loss of Foster in the offseason, and injuries to multiple starters both in camp and in Week 1, the Steelers' offensive line has played extremely well as a unit in all three games this season, letting up just five sacks.

After watching the film of the Steelers' first three games of the season, it was clear that left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Feiler, and center Maurkice Pouncey are all still playing at high levels. What stood out to me however, was the play of two young offensive lineman in rookie guard Dodson, and third-year offensive tackle Okorafor. 

Both players got their first start in Week 2 vs. the Denver Broncos, and both played extremely well. I’ll start first with Okorafor, who replaced Banner in the lineup after Banner tore his ACL in Week 1 vs. the New York Giants (Banner was playing very well before he went down as a side note). 

Okorafor has played excellent in the run game, displaying outstanding hand strength to latch on to defenders and keep them within his frame. With a massive frame and above average strength, he generates movement upon contact and always plays through the whistle. In pass protection, Okorafor uses his outstanding length to keep his pads clear and forces the edge rushers to have a far distance to travel. He struggles to anchor vs power at times, but after playing well against Bradley Chubb and J.J. Watt, it appears the Steelers have found their answer at the right tackle position.

The real story here was the play of Dodson. He got the start in Week 2, filling in for Wisniewski, who suffered pec injury in Week 1. Dodson was extremely impressive against the Broncos showing incredibly quick and violent hands with an ability to anchor in pass protection. In the running game, he is aggressive and likes to initiate contact with very good leverage and power. Dodson went on to receive the game ball for his play in his first career NFL start. 

Five-time Pro Bowler David DeCastro, who missed almost all of training camp with a knee injury, made his return in Week 3, sending Dodson to the bench. DeCastro looked good in his return and should only improve as the season progresses.

With what was initially a concern, the Steelers now have one of the best starting offensive lines in the league, and now also have very quality depth. As the team gets healthier and their young players continue to gain experience, the Steelers' offense is set up very nicely to continue their early season success. 

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