Tim Benz: How to deal with Steelers offensive line? Train around it in 2022, improve it in 2023 – TribLIVE


Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen have nowhere to hide.

After the unit’s shaky performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Saturday’s 16-15 preseason win, the players are taking heat from fans and media outside the team facility and their own head coach inside it.

Consider this anecdote from guard Kendrick Green after Mike Tomlin took a look at the film against the Jaguars.

“Not good at all. ‘Coach T’ put us on the board,” Green said Monday. “Me, specifically. Right before the team meeting. That never feels good.”

It’s a little deep on the calendar to address concerns on the offensive line right now, at least in terms of personal review. High-quality offensive linemen aren’t often available on the open market to come in and start a new franchise in late August.

The occasional receiver might be. Backup running back or quarterback. Maybe a rotational pass rusher or veteran helps in the secondary.

But looking for multiple answers along the offensive line at this late stage is like looking for milk or toilet paper at the local Giant Eagle after the first Pittsburgh snow forecast of the year.

Sometimes, you can snag Flozell Adams for a season, like the Steelers did in 2010. But even he signed at the end of July. You can move a guy up the depth chart in a pinch, but no one on the current roster seems to be pushing for such a promotion.

The best thing for the Steelers may be to plan around the problem. Then again, didn’t they do that for the last two years of Ben Roethlisberger’s career?

Sure, that quick-release passing approach was mostly a way for Roethlisberger to protect himself from opposing passers due to his lack of mobility. But it was also a way to protect the offensive line from having to block very long.

Now, with more nimble quarterbacks on the roster, the onus may be on Matt Canada to draft and call a boatload of designed lands, bootlegs and mobile pocket plays so his quarterbacks aren’t sitting ducks behind a collapsing O-line.

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Fortunately, that’s an alleged strength of Canada, and apparently skills possessed by new QBs Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett.

Even Mason Rudolph is more mobile than he gets credit for when he commits to using his legs (note last year’s Lions game when he ran for 36 yards in his only start).

Some play-action and well-timed jet sweeps as well as varied personnel alignments can keep the defense on its toes and slow down an opposing pass rush. But the offensive line will sometimes have to win in the run game as well to make any of that effective. That has been another problem for this unit in recent years.

The Steelers’ best hope is to simply improve on what they have. And in a hurry.

“There weren’t enough details from a fine motor skills standpoint, details related to their position,” Tomlin said Monday. “They didn’t play with enough edge individually and collectively. The things that are on our tape, we have to own, and I think they’ll be willing to do that.”

How the Steelers deal with rebuilding the offensive line in the future may be the first real sign of the influence of new assistant general manager Andy Weidl. Despite having roots with the Steelers dating back to his first job as a player personnel assistant in the mid-90s, Weidl has worked with other teams such as the Eagles, Saints and Ravens.

Perhaps he will bring more priority to addressing the offensive linemen early in the draft or at a premium at the tackle position in free agency. The Steelers haven’t drafted a first-round tackle since Jamain Stephens in 1996. And the Steelers don’t often populate that position with high-level free agents either.

The Steelers often won division titles and sometimes went to Super Bowls with Roethlisberger helping average offensive lines look above average. But for most of Roethlisberger’s career, there was at least one Pro Bowler in center (Jeff Hartings, then Maurkice Pouncey) and at least one Pro Bowler at guard (Alan Faneca, then David DeCastro).

When Roethlisberger broke the mound in Super Bowl XL his second year, the starting offensive line had two first-round guards in Faneca and Kendall Simmons and a first-round center in Hartings, who had signed as a fairly high-profile free agent from Detroit before. the 2001 season. The tackles were a six-year second-rounder in Marvel Smith and a third-rounder in Max Starks.

If Pickett eventually starts as a rookie, the only lineman ahead of him with a resume close to that will be guard James Daniels. He was a second-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2018 and signed with the Steelers for $26.5 million this offseason.

But he had difficulty adjusting in Pittsburgh. Green and tackle Chuks Okorafor were mid- to late third-rounders. Green was switched from guard to center and now back to guard again. Tackle Dan Moore and guard Kevin Dotson are fourth-rounders. And center Mason Cole (2018 third-round pick) is on his third team in three seasons after signing a three-year deal with a modest $4.56 million signing bonus.

Meanwhile, skill positions like Pickett, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, George Pickens and Chase Claypool are all first-round picks over the past three drafts. Diontae Johnson was a third-round pick who just signed a $36.7 million contract extension.

If the Steelers are in 11 personnel (which they were 75% of the time it lasts a year) with all six of those guys on the field at once, someone will be Pickett’s fifth option on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, his starting offensive linemen are supposed to be on the field and high functioning for every snap.

As formidable as all those smart kids are and with a defense that had the highest salary in football after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s contract extension in June, it’s time for the Steelers to shift focus back to acquiring elite offensive talent. Maybe Weidl can push Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II in that direction.

“Whatever we can do to implement, bring things, add, improve and evolve, we’ll do it,” Weidl said during a recent training camp press conference.

The offensive line would be a great place to start. Unfortunately, a lot of that will probably have to wait until next year.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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