When the 2021 NFL regular season kicks off in the fall, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line will look dramatically different than it has for over a decade. That is due to the retirement of five-time All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and the likely departure of at least one other 2020 starter.
Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler and Zach Banner all started for the Steelers on the offensive line during the 2020 season and all are now entering NFL Free Agency. With limited cap space, it’s impossible for the Steelers to bring the full crew back.
Changes Will Take Place Across Steelers Offensive Line
Villanueva is 33 years old and a multi-year starter at tackle. His price tag is probably going to be too high for the Steelers to afford. Feiler is pushing 30, and while he has the versatility to play both guard and tackle, his age and price tag probably lead to his departure in free agency.
Banner was named the starting right tackle for 2020, but unfortunately suffered a torn ACL in Week 1 and missed the entire season. The Steelers coaching staff thought well enough of Banner to name him a starter, and his relative lack of a track record (he has made only two career NFL starts) make him the most likely of the three free agent offensive linemen to re-sign with the team. This should make many Steelers fans happy, as Banner has become a popular figure in the Steel City.
Steelers Offensive Line Struggles
The Steelers offensive line had a very uneven 2020 season. Pass blocking was not a problem, as the team allowed only 14 total sacks all year. This was partly due to the nature of the passing offense, which emphasized getting the ball out of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands as fast as possible with short passes.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com Roethlisberger’s Completed Air Yards (CAP) per Completion – that is, the yards the ball traveled in the air past the line of scrimmage prior to a completion – was just 4.6. The lack of a consistent medium-to-long-range passing game contributed to the Steelers’ lack of success running the football. Steelers backs averaged just 2.76 yards per carry for the season, with James Conner leading the team in rushing yards with only 721. Gone were the days of typical Steelers football where any lead was protected by a running attack that could gain yards and run clock equally effectively.
The Steelers’ running failures last season were not just personnel or scheme-related. The team lacked a commitment to run the ball. After some early-season success on the ground, the offense moved away from the run to concentrate on the quick short passing game. Dionte Johnson, James Washington, rookie Chase Claypool and Juju Smith-Schuster all have big-play capability and showed it at various times, taking short throws and turning them into big gains. However, those big plays became less frequent as the season wore on and teams increasingly ignored the run to concentrate on stopping the short throws.
Projected Steelers Offensive Line Starters
Projected starters for 2021 are six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro David DeCastro, 2020 fourth-round draft pick Kevin Dotson, third-round 2018 draft pick Chukwuma (Chuks) Okorafor and Zach Banner. The most likely scenario is that the fifth starter will be picked in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft.
The Steelers re-signed Feiler and J.C. Hassenauner to one-year deals to provide some depth and mitigate against injury. They also brought back B.J. Finney, a versatile lineman who played with the Steelers for four seasons before being traded to the Cincinnati Bengals last October. Finney also spent time with the Seattle Seahawks in the 2020 season. Kameron Canaday projects as the long-snapper, a role he has played for the team since 2017. This still leaves the team rather thin at line in case of injuries or ineffectiveness. It is not out of the question to see the Steelers sign a low-cost free-agent veteran to provide some depth on the line.
Must Commit to the Run
For the Steelers to have success on offense in 2021, they will need to make a serious commitment to running the ball. Peyton Manning’s time with the Denver Broncos provides an excellent example of what the Steelers should look to do in 2021. Manning took a step back and became more of a supporting player, as the running game emerged as the primary offensive weapon. Combined with a strong defense, the Broncos made the Super Bowl using this approach.
Roethlisberger needs to adjust his play like Manning did. The Steelers will not be a championship contender with Big Ben, or any other quarterback they might have, throwing the ball over 30 times per game.