If your name is called consistently during a broadcast, it's usually not a good thing as a Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman.
Such is life as the big men in the NFL, doing the majority of the dirty work without receiving a sliver of the glitz and glamor that comes with playing professional football at its highest level. There's a quote by Blaine Nye that perfectly sums up offensive (and defensive) linemen:
"Offensive linemen are like salt. Nobody ever remembers the brand they buy."
To the casual fan, offensive linemen are hardly known. Yet to the advanced levels of the football world stretching to even the team's themselves, there's no underrating the impact of superior blocking upfront. The Steelers know this all too well, as the franchise has historically been linked to tough, hard-nosed running of the football spanning over the course of decades.
In recent memory, the Steelers have seen the opposite side of the spectrum, especially after ranking at the bottom of the league in rushing offense for the 2020 season.
Sure, in a passing league, running the ball isn't as important when compared to the game the older generations have watched. However, when the Steelers were in dire need to churn the clock out in a close game or simply needed balance to the offense to take pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the ability to effectively run the ball simply didn't exist.
Fingers were pointed at everybody involved. Many felt the offensive line play was less than par for the course, while others believe the running back depth chart was merely average, and the Steelers possessed an offensive coordinator that (more often times than not) moved the offense backward rather than forwards.
The truth is: All the above is true, and the Steelers knew that heading into the 2021 offseason. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was sent packing, and so too were the likes of running back James Conner and three of Pittsburgh's starting five offensive linemen from the prior year.
Newly-promoted offensive play-caller Matt Canada brings promise of fresher/more modern concepts to Pittsburgh, while the Steelers brought in a mixed bag of veteran offensive linemen (tackle Joe Haeg and interior linemen B.J. Finney). The addition of running back Najee Harris and offensive linemen Kendrick Green/Dan Moore through the 2021 NFL Draft acted as a youth movement for the Steelers in their efforts to overhaul the offense for brighter days ahead.
With OTA's, training camp and preseason still ahead for the aforementioned offensive linemen to make their mark, there's no telling which rookie will be able to get themselves ahead of the curve and into the starting lineup.
Around the league, many aren't fond of Pittsburgh's starting five upfront.
While the debate between which offensive line is "worse" can be debated (Let's ask Joe Burrow how the knee is feeling from last year), the Steelers indeed have fallen atop the pillars of having one of the best offensive line units in the league.
The main culprit? Inexperience. Completing taking rookie offensive linemen out of the picture (Don't completely knock it, Kevin Dotson sat behind a reeling Matt Feiler while being the obvious choice), the Steelers' starting five would look something like this:
LT: Chukwuma Okorafor (19 games started in career, 15 of which came at RT in 2020)
LG: Kevin Dotson (4 games started in career)
C: B.J. Finney (13 games started in career. None last year between CIN/SEA)
RG: David DeCastro (124 starts in career)
RT: Zach Banner (2 games started in career. Coming off torn ACL)
Aside from the anchor that's been DeCastro (who himself played less than admirable last season), Pittsburgh's remaining four offensive linemen have a combined 38 starts between them. ESPN's Mike Clay also points out only two offensive linemen on the roster played 340+ snaps last season.
Adding in a possible start from third-round pick Kendrick Green or even Dan Moore should he really impress (Mike Tomlin was clear that he wasn't just handing over the job to Okorafor) brings those numbers down even more.
Concerning? Sure, in a league where defensive linemen and linebackers have only gotten stronger and faster, inexperience definitely does not favor the offense. However, the Steelers (as well as their big men) are confident in the youth movement upfront, regardless of whatever numbers may arise on the stat sheet.
Chukwuma Okorafor definitely was not at his best last season at right tackle, stepping in for starter Zach Banner following his season-ending injury. However, there was a small period of time in the early stages of the season where Okorafor looked like the team's best performing offensive linemen, and the Steelers hope to recapture some of that form on the left side of the ball.
Should they not, the talents of Dan Moore may be able to step in, yet Moore may need a year's worth of sideline studying to get acclimated to the next level. Pro Football Hall of Famer Gil Brandt believes Moore was one of the best steals of the draft, a good sign for the Steelers after landing a similar-regarded prospect in Kevin Dotson last season in the fourth round as well.
Speaking of Dotson, the hype around the Louisiana product appears to be legitimate, as Dotson's small sample size of play in 2020 showed he was undoubtedly the future of Pittsburgh's offensive line. With David DeCastro anchoring the opposite side of the line with a clean bill of health heading into the season, the Steelers believe the interior of the line is very much in good hands.
That extends to the center position as well, as the Steelers are very high on the talents of Kendrick Green, enough to possibly see him start out of the gates on opening night of the 2021 NFL season. Should Green not be ready, a familiar face in B.J. Finney would be able to step in.
As for the right tackle spot, the entire city of Pittsburgh is ready to see Zach Banner fulfill his potential after getting the opportunity to do so snatched from him in 2020. Banner, a fan-favorite for his personality on and off the field, looks to prove to the outside world that he's the man for the foreseeable future at right tackle. The Steelers remained confident in Banner even following his injury, and they look to emerge as winners by giving him another shot.
Were the Steelers able to completely overhaul their offensive line? Not at all, as that would be an impossible task given other needs on the team heading into both free agency and the NFL Draft.
The starts aren't there. The rest of the numbers and accolades aren't. The rest of the league and some local media don't believe they'll be competitive upfront. The "dominant offensive line" aura has indeed washed itself away.
Yet the Steelers are willing to roll the dice on the guys they currently have, and with many other factors now expected to play in their favor, such as a first-round running back and expected upgrades in scheming/play-calling, Pittsburgh's group of offensive linemen will happily swap the term "inexperienced" for "effective" at season's end.
For now, however, the group looks to build the foundation of a strong 2021 showing ahead of the upcoming OTAs.