The NFL season is upon us. Everyday we grow closer to opening kickoff, and it’s a season that holds a lot of promise for the Steelers. If the team stays healthy, the “stairway to seven” mission is not an absurd thought. The offense is a juggernaut and the defense is getting younger and faster. There’s a lot to dissect here, in terms of trying to figure out just what this Steeler team is capable of. I could try to put it into one gigantic article that could rival Atlas Shrugged in length, but I figured it would be more fun to break this down by position, or at least groups. So here in my first installment, I’m going to preview where football is won and lost, in the trenches: the Pittsburgh offensive and defensive lines. Here’s what the rest of the preseason will hold:
August 12th – Linebackers
August 19th – Secondary
August 26th – Running Backs
September 2nd – Quarterback/Receivers/Tight End
September 9th – Final Season Preview (w/ prediction)
LT Alejandro Villanueva
LG Ramon Foster
C Maurkice Pouncey
RG David DeCastro
RT Marcus Gilbert
The offensive line is coming off of a solid season. They continued to improve as a unit in terms of protecting the quarterback and creating holes for Bell or Williams. When this line is healthy, they easily could be argued as top 5 in the NFL. Pouncey is arguably the best center in the game, DeCastro and Foster are a great pair of guards. The offensive tackle position is really the only weakness. Gilbert is a much better run blocker than pass blocker, and Villanueva is a bit inconsistent. If Pouncey goes down with another injury, Cody Wallace would step in as center, but that is a major downgrade. Health is going to be the key issue for the offensive line, however there is silver lining. The offensive line proved last year that even through injury, they work well together as a unit. They communicate well and it doesn’t hurt to have Ben Roethlisberger be your biggest cheerleader. Outside of health, the only other factor to watch out for is penalties. Last year, it seemed the offensive line committed penalties at bad times. They committed just over two penalties per game, which isn’t terrible, but they have to be more mindful in clutch situations.
Another thing to be mindful of is Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley’s offensive scheme benefits the offensive line. Ben gets rid of the ball quicker, in turn, less time to commit penalties and less likelihood of allowing a sack.
Overall, I’m confident in what this unit can do. What was once a major team weakness, is now one of the team’s underrated positions.
Preseason Grade: B+
LDE Cam Heyward
NT Daniel McCullers
RDE Stephon Tuitt
This defensive line is something to be excited about. Cam Heyward is a superstar. I don’t care if he gets the league-wide recognition or not, he’s a beast. Stephon Tuitt has lived up to expectations of being a second round draft pick. He’s shown at times to be just as dominant on the line as Heyward. With two years now under his belt, he should continue to improve. The tandem of Heyward and Tuitt could possibly rival any other pair of defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme in the league. Last year, they combined for 13.5 sacks (Heyward 7, Tuitt 6.5), and they both finished with 54 total tackles, 39 solo tackles EACH. They clog up blockers and put pressure on the quarterback. They can both also play in formations with only two down-lineman, which makes them more valuable in third down situations when Keith Butler has more defensive backs on the field. There’s every reason to be high on these two guys. They give reason to believe in this front-seven again.
The position of question here is nose tackle. The Steelers may never have another dominant nose tackle like Casey Hampton. That’s just something we might have to live with. McCullers is intriguing. He’s as big as a house at 6’7″ and 352 pounds. If he gets leverage on a blocker, you’re not moving him. McCullers’ height could be his biggest weakness though. Blockers get low to gain leverage on defenders, and most interior offensive lineman are shorter than McCullers. That’s one of the reasons Casey Hampton was so good; he’s only 6’1″, which is much shorter than most interior offensive lineman. Leverage is a huge factor for nose tackles. Clog up blockers and push them back. Force the running back outside and collapse the pocket for the quarterback. Another guy to watch for this season is this year’s third round pick out of South Carolina State Javon Hargrave. He’s built much like Hampton (also 6’1″) and has a lot of raw talent as a pass rusher, but much like the rest of the draft class, it’s raw talent. You have to be patient with him. The ceiling is high for Hargrave and if he hits near his potential as the year goes on, he could replace McCullers.
Overall, I think the defensive line will again show they are part of the stronger part of the defense. The Steelers are relying on their front seven to create havoc for the quarterback to try and make the secondary’s job easier. The defensive line can help with that, however, I have concern at nose tackle.
Preseason Grade: B+
I believe the organization has done a great job over the last several years rebuilding both the offensive and defensive lines. Football is won in the trenches at the line of scrimmage. If you can control the line of scrimmage, it gives you a much better chance to win. These two units can get it done on both sides of the ball. They shouldn’t give much reason to be having heart attacks on Sunday afternoons this season.
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