(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
The Steelers' offensive line is going to look a lot different in 2021. Maurkice Pouncey announced yesterday that he retired and Alejandro Villanueva is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, and the Steelers most likely won't re-sign him. There's also the possibility that Villanueva, who will turn 33 in September, might retire anyway and move on with his life's work.
Matt Feiler also is set to become an unrestricted free agent and probably won't be back as the Steelers have Kevin Dotson to fill in at left guard. Feiler was better as a right tackle than at left guard. Dotson was noticeably better than Feiler at left guard last season in the times that he started.
Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner most likely will be the starting offensive tackles -- Okorafor moves to left tackle and Banner steps in at right tackle. The Steelers should draft a center and left tackle early in the draft with Pouncey retiring and Villanueva likely on his way out.
DeCastro will be back at right guard, but he's not all that young either, as he turned 31 last month and he'll be playing on the final year of his contract. To top it all off, the Steelers have a new offensive line coach in Adrian Klemm, who was promoted after Shaun Sarrett didn't have his contract renewed after the 2020 season.
There's a lot of change, and that's probably a good thing as the offensive line was putrid last season, especially when it came to run blocking.
In 2020, the Steelers ranked dead last in rushing yards per game (82.5) and yards per carry (3.6). Their 1,351 rushing yards last year were the fewest in franchise history. Also, the Steelers 82.5 yards rushing per game in 2020 was their fewest average since 1966 when they averaged 78.0 yards rushing per game.
The lack of success in the run game is a big reason why offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett didn't have their contracts renewed following the end of the 2020 season.
The Steelers' run game started the season off strong with rushing over 100 yards in each of their first five games and had a 100-yard rusher in four of those games. In their last 12 games (including the wild-card game loss to Cleveland), the Steelers rushed over 100 yards just once (Week 11 against Jacksonville) and didn't have a 100-yard rusher in any games during that span.
The one bright spot of the offensive line last year was the emergence of Dotson at both guard positions. By coincidence when the run game was effective early in the year, the two times that Dotson started, both at right guard in place of David DeCastro, the Steelers rushed for over 100 yards. The Steelers rushed for 109 yards against the Broncos in Week 2 and rushed for 129 yards against the Browns in Week 6. In Week 5 against the Eagles, Dotson replaced DeCastro in the first quarter after he suffered an abdomen injury and played 54 snaps in the game. The Steelers ended up rushing for 136 yards against Philadelphia.
Dotson started at left guard the last two games of the regular season in place of Feiler, who suffered a pectoral injury, and the rookie didn't disappoint.
Dotson was excellent against the Browns in Week 17. He recorded 46 pass-blocking snaps and allowed a 0% pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus. The week before against the Colts, Dotson had 50 pass-blocking snaps on the day and didn’t allow a single pressure. Dotson started four games in the regular season (two at right guard and two at left guard) and played 358 offensive snaps. The experience that Dotson gained in 2020 should make him even a better player in 2021.
Dotson performed so well in 2020 that he was named to PFF's 2020 All-Rookie Team. Here's an excerpt of what PFF said about the fourth-round pick out of the University of Louisiana. "Dotson allowed just one pressure -- a hurry -- the entire season in 206 pass-blocking snaps. That 0.5% pressure rate allowed is the lowest by any rookie offensive lineman with at least 150 pass-blocking snaps in the past 10 seasons. Ben Roethlisberger getting the ball out as quickly as he did play a role there, but Dotson deserves his credit, as well."
Dotson is known for his power and run-blocking abilities. After the Steelers drafted Dotson in the fourth round last year Sarrett called him a "people mover." The Steelers need to rebuild their offensive line and it's up to Klemm and assistant offensive line coach Chris Morgan to mold the young players they'll bring in through the draft, along with the upcoming players they have currently on the roster.
Tomlin promoting Klemm as the offensive line coach was arguably his biggest decision of the offseason in regards to the coaching staff. Klemm's number one job is to fix the run game that has been awful the past three seasons. Dotson at left guard is a great centerpiece for Klemm to build around to improve the run game and the overall play of the offensive line.