The most underrated unit on any successful football team is definitely the offensive line. Offensive linemen are the enforcers on offense, and often set the physicality tone for the entire team. Need evidence, just watch who comes running to settle any on field disputes involving the QB or skill position players. Sustained success begins and ends with their performance as a cohesive unit.
NFL offensive linemen have to possess both brains and brawn, plus a insane amount of courage since they play the most dangerous positions on the field without a doubt. Being taken out by friendly fire, or being severely injured due to having your legs rolled up on by 300+ lbs. individuals are basically a weekly occurrence. Wimps need not apply.
Being an NFL offensive lineman means that you are a member of an exclusive fraternity. The best offensive lines share a special bond, a brotherhood if you will. The trust and chemistry necessary to develop into an superior unit is only achieved through hard work and repetitions. The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the top five offensive lines in the NFL, made all the more apparent seeing how the Steelers line hasn’t missed a beat week in and week out, even though they have been forced to play through a musical chairs situation in the first six weeks of the season.
After last season’s offensive struggles, the demise of the Steelers offensive line was greatly exaggerated. I wrote multiple articles trying to explain the inaccuracies of that narrative, as did some of my colleagues, but many fans struggled to comprehend the nearly impossible situation that the Steelers line faced on a weekly basis. The mere presence of Ben Roethlisberger behind center completely changed that perspective.
The leader of every offensive line is the man in the middle. That would be center Maurkice Pouncey for the Steelers. Last season Pouncey made the Pro Bowl on reputation alone. It was the worst season of his career, as he struggled often to handle power players in the interior and developed a severe case of the yips trying to snap the football. This season Pouncey has returned to his 8 time Pro Bowl form. His impressive mobility has been evident as he regularly gets to the second level of the defense and completes his blocks on the perimeter when pulling.
LT Alejandro Villanueva has done an outstanding job of protecting the blindside of his 38 year old franchise QB. He has also displayed incredible stamina and durability as he has played every offensive snap thus far this season. The consistency of his weekly performances are easily overlooked apparently.
Matt Feiler was the Steelers most consistent lineman last season at RT. However, due to the retirement of Ramon Foster, the Steelers moved the position flexible Feiler to LG. After struggling with his consistency to start the season, Feiler seems to have settled in at the position over the past couple of games. His functional strength is impressive, and he is fundamentally sound with his punch and footwork. He should only improve as he gets more comfortable at the position.
The right side of the line has been a pleasant surprise by all accounts. Five time Pro Bowl RG David DeCastro has been in and out of the lineup dealing with nagging injuries. He has been excellent when available, but that has been a rarity this season. Zach Banner started the season at RT, but suffered a season ending knee injury in the opener against the Giants. The two young men called upon to be the next man up have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations.
Rookie fourth rounder Kevin Dotson has been outstanding when filling in for DeCastro at RG. He was the highest rated guard in pass protection at one point this season, and was instantly the most powerful run blocker on the team the moment he stepped on the field. After working as a bouncer while in college, Dotson specializes in moving large men against their will. He is too talented to keep off the field for much longer.
Chukwuma Okorafor replaced Banner at RT after the aforementioned injury, after finishing second in the training camp competition for the position. To be totally honest, after watching Okorafor play at a superior level this season, it is hard to believe he lost that competition. Truthfully, as I wrote when Banner was named the starter, the Steelers believed Okorafor had more value as a swing tackle because he could play either side and Banner was strictly a RT.
Okorafor has a bright future in the NFL, and is already playing at a Pro Bowl level. His athleticism is breathtaking, and his balance and lateral movements are already elite. He has the feet of a ballerina, coupled with the punch and reach of a heavyweight champion.
I know it can be incredibly difficult to see during live game action because our attention is naturally drawn to the football, but try to focus on the offensive line periodically throughout the game if you want to see the often overlooked poetry in motion of the Steelers offensive line.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the outstanding job being done by OL Coach Shaun Sarrett. He has these guys playing like a well oiled machine even with all the moving pieces.
The Steelers offensive line is the foundation of what is potentially a championship caliber offense.