No matter how good the skill position players are, despite having a prototype franchise quarterback, if the battles in the trenches aren’t regularly won, it is awfully difficult to win in the NFL. The success of any offense starts up front, and for the Steelers, they have one of the best units around in Alejandro Villanueva (LT), David DeCastro (LG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), Ramon Foster (RG), and Marcus Gilbert (RG). From the mid 70’s thru 2005, the Steelers had one of the more dominant and stable offensive lines in the league. From 2006 thru 2013, that line seemingly became like a patchwork quilt from week to week, leaving Ben Roethlisberger to take a brutal pounding over the first 10 years of his career. How brutal was it for Roethlisberger? He was sacked 386 times, which equals out to being taken down on 7.9% of his pass attempts. Over the last three years, this offensive line has drastically improved in pass protection, reducing the sacks per season allowed from 38.6 to 23.3, and the sack percentage from 7.9% to 4.1%.
2016 was one of the best years in team history for pass protection, as the offensive line surrendered just 17 sacks in 509 passing attempts, a sack rate of just 3.2%. This is a combination of a lot of talent and hard work by the unit, an excellent job of coaching by Mike Munchak, and the good fortune of remaining relatively healthy. Not only did they keep Ben upright, they helped LeVeon Bell to 4.9 yards per carry during the season, the highest average of his career when he has played 10 or more games in a season. The quality of play along the offensive line goes beyond the starting five though, as several backups came in at various points of the season to help maintain the standard of play. BJ Finney, Cody Wallace, and Chris Hubbard all stepped in at one point or another to provide quality play when needed, with each being ready to go and bringing a nasty attitude with them.
With the rise of talent and depth along the line, just as important is the stability that there now is as well. The only free agents this unit has are Finney (ERFA), Hubbard (RFA), Wallace (UFA). As much as the coaching staff likes them, and the fact that none of the three are going to break the bank, the Steelers will most likely bringing them all back next season. Also returning will be Jerald Hawkins, who was impressing as a rookie until he was lost for the season with a rotator cuff injury. According to Tunch Ilkin, who came across Hawkins at the team facilities a few weeks back, he didn’t recognize him at first. Ilkin refered to Hawkins as looking like a monster, and evidently was taking full advantage of the weight room during rehab, and couldn’t wait to see him back on the field. Also on the offseason roster are OL Matt Feiler 6’6″/330 lbs from Bloomsburg, and OT Brian Mihalik 6’9″/302 lbs from Boston College.
The Steelers offensive line might be the most stable unit on the team. Under Mike Munchak it has come a long way and should be a formidable unit for the foreseeable future. The average age of the line is 27.3 years old, with Ramon Foster being the oldest starter at 31, so there is plenty of good years left here. It’s likely that the Steelers will continue looking for depth and take a late round flyer on another offensive lineman, but at least now it’s more of a luxury, and not out of necessity, but it’s a luxury Ben Roethlisberger and LeVeon Bell will continue to appreciate.