One of the more memorable quotes from Ben Roethlisberger over his 16-plus seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers came as a 35-year-old in 2017.
During the postgame glow of a victory at Kansas City that came a week after throwing five interceptions during a loss that had some openly wondering if the end was near for likely future Hall of Famer, Roethlisberger delivered a subtle-yet-smug retort.
“I guess this old cowboy has got a little left in him.”
Some of Roethlisberger’s closet fiends on the Pittsburgh Steelers are the members of his offensive line. They are hoping 2020 serves as a season-long similar reaffirmation.
For the better part of a decade, the Steelers enjoyed reliable continuity and consistent performance from their offensive line that was the envy of much of the NFL. Barring injury, center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster started next to each other throughout the entire 2010s. David DeCastro joined them in late 2012 and has filled the right guard spot since.
When healthy, just two men — Kelvin Beachum and Alejandro Villanueva — have started at left tackle over that span. And Marcus Gilbert and Matt Feiler have been the only full-time right tackles the Steelers have used since 2011.
But change is coming in 2020. The Steelers will have their third consecutive different season-opening starting right tackle. They’ll have a new left guard, too. Their left tackle is entering the final year of his contract.
The only thing constant is change. And change is coming to the Steelers offensive line.@TimBenzPGHhttps://t.co/FDejgzA0FI
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) August 11, 2020
Most of all, though, Father Time is beckoning for a line whose starters last season had an average age of 30.
“Maybe we are getting a little old,” DeCastro said during a video conference call with media last week, “but we’ve still have some juice left in us.”
The reconfiguration of the Steelers’ offensive line this season involves the move of Feiler to left guard and either Chuks Orkorafor or Zach Banner taking over at right tackle. DeCastro, Pouncey and Villanueva hold their respective spots, but Villanueva — who turns 32 next month — is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in the spring. DeCastro (30) and Pouncey (31) have expiring contracts after next season, meaning their play this season will help determine whether the Steelers sign them to extensions in 2021.
All this against a backdrop of a season that suggests the Steelers’ offensive line had one of its worst efforts since the current group was put together.
The traditional statistics had the Steelers as the third-worst in total offense, fourth-worst in rushing, third-worst in yards per carry, second-worst in passing and sixth-worst in scoring. Sacks of Steelers quarterbacks climbed 33% from 2018, from 24 to 32.
The more advanced stats were ugly in some areas for the Steelers’ line. For example, in metrics devised by footballoutsiders.com, they were third-worst in the NFL in adjusted-line rushing yards, tied for fifth-worst in rate of success in “power” running plays, and second-worst in “stuffed” percentage.
Mostly, though, the numbers didn’t necessarily rate the Steelers’ offensive line as awful as much as they merely signaled a decline from lofty levels. It fell, for example, from fourth to 12th in footballoutsiders.com’s pass protection metric, and from first to ninth overall by Pro Football Focus.
Although the offense’s overall meager production in 2019 comes with the sizable caveat that Roethlisberger was injured, DeCastro referred to the unit as “pretty terrible” and “a disaster.” But how much of a factor was the offensive line?
“We take pride in the offensive line,” he said. “Obviously, we think we are pretty good. But it is a team effort.
“When we are not good as a whole, everyone is going to look bad. That is just the nature of it. I am not trying to put blame on anyone else. We had our bad play, that’s for sure. Take more responsibility.”
But there might be an advantage of advanced age during this unique NFL season. It is becoming generally-accepted theory for 2020 that the teams with an abundance of experience and continuity will be best-equipped for navigating a season that had a shortened camp, no on-field offseason work and no preseason games.
“Particularly in this environment, I think continuity is an asset,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Offensive line, it probably gives you an advantage in some of the unforeseen things that you could see in stadiums at the early portions of the season that you don’t have a lot of video evidence of.
“We are hoping that playing experience, and particularly that shared playing experience, is an asset to a group in some unique times.”
Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here.
Sports | Steelers/NFL