For years, the Steelers' offensive line created clean pockets and gaping running lanes for some of the game's brightest offensive stars. Unfortunately, in this post-Killer B and post-Mike Munchak era, the excellence of the guys up front hasn't been there. A unit that has long been considered among the NFL's best -- if not the best -- has been a major culprit in this nightmarish 0-3 start.
Under Munchak, who's now coaching the Broncos' O-line, the Steelers extracted maximum value and performance from big men who ranged from former first-round picks (Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro) to undrafted free agents (Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Matt Feiler). But through the first three weeks of 2019, the line has underachieved.
• Last year, the Steelers ranked 15th in the NFL with an average of 4.44 Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) per rushing attempt. ALY is a Football Outsiders stat that measures an offensive line's ability to open up holes for running backs based on down, distance, situation and opponent. Rushing yards gained closer to the line of scrimmage are credited more to the O-line, while yards gained farther down the field are credited more to the running back. In 2019, the Steelers rank 25th in ALY, with an average of just 3.65 per rushing attempt. Pittsburgh's linemen were successful in creating space for rushers around the ends last year. This season? Not so much. The Steelers placed fifth in ALY on carries to the left tackle in 2018 (4.91). This year, they rank 29th (1.71). They ranked first in ALY on carries around the right end in 2018 (6.33). This year, the rank 30th (-1.17).
• When the Steelers needed to manhandle opposing D-linemen in short-yardage situations last year, they excelled. Pittsburgh was fifth in the NFL in power success rate (71 percent), which measures how often an offense earns a first down or a touchdown with two yards or less to go. In 2019, the Steelers have been stymied. Their 50 percent power success rate ranks 24th among all teams. Granted, James Conner and company need to be better also, but the O-line hasn't imposed its will and kept drives alive.
• While the Steelers aren't hanging Mason Rudolph out to dry on every play, they aren't necessarily giving him the kind of pocket protection that Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed either. Rudolph was sacked twice during his first NFL start, and he absorbed four hits overall. This isn't a case of a novice QB just holding on to the ball too long, either. Rudolph is averaging about 2.7 seconds between the time the ball is snapped and when he throws, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That's right around the NFL average for QBs.
• Pro Football Focus issues a 0-100 grade to lineman based on their pass- and run-blocking prowess. The Steelers' O-line graded as an above-average unit across the board last year, with Villanueva earning the highest rating among a group that had three Pro Bowl players. In 2019, Villanueva is the team's second-lowest-rated starting lineman. Foster, who enjoyed a healthy and resurgent 2018, has also declined significantly:
The O-line is hardly the only reason why the winless Steelers rank 27th in points per game (16.3), 29th in total yards (269.3), and 28th in third-down conversion rate (25.7 percent). But an offense that clearly has nowhere nearly the same skill-position talent as it used to needs much more from its hogs up front.
Is this O-line's 2019 season so far just a blip on the radar -- one that we'll forget when they're back to pancaking people mid-season?
Do they miss Munchak's coaching that much?
Or, most alarmingly, are we actually seeing signs of decline from an aging unit?
Foster is about to turn 34, Villanueva is 31, Pouncey is 30, and DeCastro will turn 30 this season. Only Feiler (27) is squarely in his physical prime.
If the Steelers can't count on Pro Bowl-level production from the line while they're breaking in a new QB and coping with the loss of a generational wideout, this could get very ugly.
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