Over the last couple of weeks, Pro Football Focus has been compiling rankings on each team's respective position groups and today they revealed their offensive line rankings. Steve Palazzolo of PFF recently called the Steelers’ offensive line a “mess,” so it wasn’t surprising that he had them ranked 29th in the NFL.
“With three new starters up front, Pittsburgh's offensive line enters 2021 with its most question marks in years,” Palazzolo wrote.”The unit regressed to 17th in our final 2020 rankings after years of exemplifying the way offensive lines should be built — with solid starters and limited weaknesses in the starting lineup.
“Chukwuma Okorafor moves from right to left tackle after grading out at 57.4 overall last season, ranking 74th out of 84 qualifying tackles. It was Okorafor’s first year as a starter, and while we’ve seen linemen make jumps in Years 3 or 4, he needs to take big strides this season.
“The right tackle spot is manned by Zach Banner, who has shown power in the run game despite seeing just 302 snaps since entering the league in 2017. Banner has proven to be below average in pass protection during his limited time as a pro.”
The offensive tackle position is the biggest unknown for the Steelers in 2021, as Chuks Okorafor wasn’t impressive last year at right tackle and he’s projected to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side at left tackle this season. They also have a big void to fill at center with Maurkice Pouncey retiring this offseason and they’ll have a three-way competition for the starting center spot with third-round pick Kendrick Green, B.J. Finney and J.C. Hassenhauer.
“Former starting center Maurkice Pouncey retired, and while his on-field play has generally underwhelmed compared to his hype, he did provide stability up front for the Steelers. J.C. Hassenhauer and third-rounder Kendrick Green will compete for the starting spot,” Palazzolo wrote. “Hassenauer graded out at 57.7 overall on 303 snaps last season, while Green ranked near the top of the draft class in both positively and negatively graded run blocks over the past two years.
“Right guard David DeCastro is the one stabilizing player up front, though his 66.2 overall grade in 2020 was a career-low mark. Like the rest of the Pittsburgh line, DeCastro struggled in the run game, but he’s now posted seven straight years with excellent 80.0-plus grades in pass protection.
“2020 fourth-rounder Kevin Dotson had a fine rookie season, posting similar grades as DeCastro, including a much better mark in pass protection (87.2) than the run game (55.1).
The Steelers enter 2021 with big question marks at both tackle spots and center. The offensive line looks like a bottom-tier unit unless players develop across the board.”
While there will be three new starters on the offensive line this year, it might be beneficial to them as Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva were below average last year and Matt Feiler struggled at right guard. They also have a new offensive line coach in Adrian Klemm who’s bringing an aggressive mentality to the young offensive line.
“We call it necessary violence,” Zach Banner said about Klemm’s coaching style via Mark Kaboly of The Athletic. “There is that, not to hurt somebody on purpose, but that thug mentality that we have when we put our helmets on. It is still professional, still structured … when I look at my guys going out of the tunnel, I am looking at them and saying let’s f-ing go and we have that as a coach.”
Klemm is even instructing the offensive line to play in a three-point stance with their hand in the dirt more often, instead of a two-point stance like in the last few years, which should help the run game that finished dead last in rushing yards per game (84.4) and yards per carry (3.6) in 2020.
“It’s a culture that was recruited and put together by ‘Coach T’ this offseason, and it really shows,” Banner said via Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “In saying that ‘thug mentality,’ the last thing I want people to think is we’re walking around Pittsburgh beating people up or doing dumb stuff. But at the same time, what else would you want as an offensive line unit? That’s my question. You’ve got to come off the ball and kill people, and that’s the type of mentality we need to have.”