Now 39 years old, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enters 2021 on the side of caution following the loss of his most well-known bodies along the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line. Gone are the talents in tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler, along with interior road-graders Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, ushering in a line of new faces in charge of keeping Roethlisberger upright.
While many questioned general manager Kevin Colbert’s ultimate ability to glue the unit back together, the Steelers’ projected starting five has offered more than enough optimism thru camp and the preseason thus far to kick pessimism to the curb, allowing Mike Tomlin’s unit to enter Week 1 full steam ahead within an ever-competitive AFC North.
Following each of his two red-zone touchdown passes to first-year tight end Pat Freiermuth on Saturday, Roethlisberger rejoiced with the group he’d never even met prior to this season. Following the aforementioned departures, injuries, and a battle for the left guard spot, the 2021 Steelers offensive line—as it looked against the Detroit Lions—took the field as a unit for the very first time in what will be a season littered with expectations.
From left to right, the Steelers lined up as follows: Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, Trai Turner, and Zach Banner. While three of the five played together in Week 2 of the preseason in Philadelphia, Banner was held out as he continued to recover from a torn ACL suffered last year in the season opener. The surprise, however, has been Dotson, who has surpassed Rashaad Coward as the No. 1 left guard… for now. A 2020 fourth-round selection, Dotson made four starts in his first season in Pittsburgh, but made 13 overall appearances inside, filling in for the slew of injuries suffered last fall along the offensive front. While Tomlin hasn’t been shy in confirming Dotson needs more work up-front, his insertion with the ones provided a clear view into the front five Tomlin has initially penciled in for Week 1.
However, with the inherent positivity surrounding the unit has come the integral point of chemistry that simply isn’t present as of now for Roethlisberger and his line. With Villanueva, Pouncey, DeCastro, and Feiler now gone, he’ll need his replacements to get used to his cadence and calls while under fire, and quickly. While first-year center Kendrick Green has had an excellent preseason following a leg injury to presumptive starter J.C. Hassenauer, his progression and captainship of the offensive line will be paramount in front of the 17-year vet.
“The offensive line has gotten a lot of flack for a little bit, but everybody is doing really well,” Banner said. “I think people are starting to take it serious from now on, but it doesn't really matter. … Whoever’s in, the standard is the standard, as coach says. And that’s the mentality we need to have for the O-line no matter what adversity we go through.”
While Pouncey (retirement) and DeCastro’s (waived) tenures in Pittsburgh came to a close in their own surprising fashion, the signing of Turner will provide vital experience to the offensive line. With 89 career starts and five Pro Bowl appearances, Pittsburgh’s overall success up front could hinge on Turner’s ability to remain healthy, avoiding the injury bug in what will be his eighth NFL campaign. Outside of the starting five, first-year lineman Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-rounder in April, has been stellar in the snaps he’s earned, allowing zero pressures in 62 pass-blocking sets.
With talent aplenty on the boundary and a shiny new talent in Najee Harris in the backfield, the Steelers’ offensive line will be tasked with laying the foundation for what can still prove to be a dynamic offense capable of lighting up the scoreboard week in and week out. With solid pass protection and the ability to open up gaps for Harris, the Steelers’ offensive line could progress into much more than just a serviceable unit following a flurry of changes within the trenches.
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