Steelers

One of the NFL’s most talented group of big men

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Center Maurkice Pouncey (53) leads a group of talented 300 pounders for the Steelers -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

As football increasingly becomes more about passing, it begs the question, does winning at the line of scrimmage still matter?

The game has always been about whose big guys do a better job of exerting their collective will.

But with more facets of the college spread offenses trickling into the league -- along with less running -- you'd think having talented big men is less important than ever. That's not necessarily the case, however.

"Yeah, I think so," Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said when I asked him if winning in the trenches still matters. "Maybe people say not so much the run, but the pressure you put on quarterbacks, yes. That's a big part of it."

Because so many teams get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly -- seven-step drops aren't all that common any more -- that pressure has to come up the middle or from the interior defenders.

And with that in mind, teams still put a premium on offensive line play.

"If you think about it, as it's trending toward a passing league, teams invest in defensive line," Steelers guard Ramon Foster told me. "What do the teams then do? Invest in o-line."

Grimy, but in different ways. Fifteen years ago, 10 teams averaged 30 rushing attempts per game. Ten years ago, that number had fallen to six. Last season, it was just two, the Ravens and Seahawks.

But the Steelers have still invested heavily in their offensive and defensive lines. Center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro were both first-round picks. On the defensive side of the ball, ends Cam Heyward (first round) and Stephon Tuitt (second round) were high picks, while nose tackle Javon Hargrave was a third-round selection.

Because of that, the Steelers have perhaps the best group of big men (300-pounders) in the league.

Pouncey, DeCastro, Heyward and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva have been voted to the Pro Bowl a combined 15 times, with Pouncey accounting for seven of those. It's a big reason why they're still considered a top contender in the AFC, despite the losses of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell this offseason.

The Eagles have 17 Pro Bowl trips among their big guys, but seven of those belong to 36-year-old offensive tackle Jason Peters, who is long past his prime. The Cowboys have 11 trips among three offensive linemen -- Tyron Smith, Zach Martin and Travis Frederick -- but none from their defensive big men.

"In a humble approach to it, there are a lot of good lines, offensive and defensive across the league. But I think we've had the opportunity here to stay together, to keep guys together and not lose guys to free agency. We have to be up there with some of the best," Foster told me. "I won't necessarily say (we're the best) because everything changes, but we have some guys who, if they were to ever get fired, they'd be picked up like that (snapping his fingers). Yeah, we're up there."

But it is costly. Heyward and Tuitt have salary cap hits of $14.9 and $13.6 million this season. DeCastro ($11.9 million), Villanueva ($8.4 million) and Pouncey ($7.9 million) all are among the highest-paid players on the team.

That solid play along both lines does still matter. A lot.

On the offensive side of things, it's all about protecting Ben Roethlisberger, who is nowhere near as mobile as he was earlier in his career. Despite attempting an NFL-high 675 passes in 2018, Roethlisberger was sacked just 24 times.

On the defensive side, the trio of Heyward, Tuitt and Hargrave combined for 20 of the Steelers' league-high 52 sacks.

That production out of the big men is especially important in today's NFL where teams go from facing a pocket passer one week to an outstanding scrambler the next.

"Everybody is going to a mobile quarterback now, or a lot of people are. They present you different problems as opposed to a guy who isn't as mobile but knows the game well," Butler said. "First game out, we'll play against the best quarterback (Tom Brady) who's probably ever played the game. That will be a challenge for us. I welcome that challenge and our guys welcome that challenge. Then, a couple of weeks later, we play guy in Baltimore (Lamar Jackson). Kansas City has got a guy. A lot of teams have a guy that can move and still throw the ball, so you have different plans for different people."

And you've still got to win those battles in the trenches or you'll be in for a very long game.

"The war up front is still a pretty serious battle," Foster said. "It's not just as cushy as people might think. You've got guards that have to block guys on the inside who run 4.6s. There's a lot that goes into it. It's not a fairy-tale league. It still gets grimy."

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