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The Steelers offensive line improved, but is it good enough to keep intact next season?

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line was able to stay together, and they improved throughout the season. But did they do enough to run the group back in 2023?

NFL: DEC 24 Raiders at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is the latest article reviewing the performance of Pittsburgh’s position groups in 2022. Here, we focus on the offensive line, which made significant improvement as the season progressed. Is the unit good enough to keep intact for 2023, though? Here’s a breakdown.

Prior to the 2022 season, Pittsburgh’s offensive line had not started a single game together. Their average age (25.2) and NFL experience (4 years) made them one of the youngest in the league. They also had a new position coach in Pat Meyer, who pledged from the outset to re-make their technique. All things considered, growing pains seemed inevitable.

They were. The line played poorly as the team stumbled to a 2-6 start. The Steelers averaged just 95 rushing yards per contest, ran for only four touchdowns and yielded 2.6 sacks per game. Coming off of a 2021 campaign where PFF rated them the worst unit in the league, and another miserable season seemed to be in the works.

Their improvement following their bye week, however, was remarkable. Over the final nine games, in which Pittsburgh went 7-2, they rushed for 146 yards per game and 12 touchdowns while reducing their sack average to 1.8. Their starters stayed healthy, playing an astounding 99.2% of the season’s total snaps together. That continuity proved beneficial, allowing them to finish a respectable 16th in PFF’s year-end rankings.

A middle-of-the-pack finish might not be cause for celebration. But with expectations miserably low, it was a pleasant surprise. With all five starters under contract for 2023, it would seem like the unit is in good shape.

Or is it? Should the Steelers bank on continuity leading to further growth in 2023? Or should they look to upgrade their weakest spots, most notably at left guard and left tackle, where Kevin Dotson and Dan Moore Jr. occasionally struggled?

These are tricky questions. Before we examine the left side of the line, let’s look at the unit’s other players. Pittsburgh spent $72 million last off-season signing free agents Mason Cole and James Daniels and re-signing right tackle Chuks Okorafor. That investment, for one year at least, paid off. The trio was solid if not spectacular throughout. All three stayed healthy, which was a huge benefit, and their improved chemistry was evident as the season progressed.

Daniels was particularly good in pass protection, where he allowed just five pressures all season. He played with good leverage, moved his feet well and was adept at recognizing line stunts. Here’s an example, where Daniels (78) trades off on a tackle-twist with Cole, staying square and keeping a good base, to give Kenny Pickett time to complete a 3rd-and-14 throw against the Ravens:

Daniels was an adequate run blocker who did his best work in Pittsburgh’s wide zone scheme, where his athleticism was an asset. Wide zone became more of a staple in the offense as the season progressed, and the Steelers often ran it to the right, where they knew Daniels would execute well:

Cole embraced the culture of the Steelers, raving about Mike Tomlin, the locker room and the fans in Pittsburgh. He brought stability to a center position that had been a disaster in 2021 under Kendrick Green and J.C. Hassenauer. He wasn’t spectacular in any way, but he did the subtle things that go largely unnoticed and are integral to success. Here, on this touchdown run against Indianapolis, Cole patiently stays on the slanting 1-tech tackle. In tandem with Dotson, he pushes him into the linebacker, clearing a backside lane for Najee Harris:

A less experienced lineman would have lunged for the backer sooner, minimizing movement on the 1-tech. Again, it’s a subtle play, but emblematic of Cole’s effectiveness.

Okorafor remains a work in progress as a run blocker. Often, pad level is the issue. When Okorafor plays too high, he loses leverage and gets stood up, like we see on this play against Baltimore:

But he played more physically under Pat Meyer’s tutelage. He is better as a positional blocker where he can shield defenders rather than have to knock them off the ball. But like we see on this snap against New Orleans, he could do that on occasion, too:

Okorafor was also very good in pass protection, yielding just two sacks all season. With Cole, Daniels and Okorafor returning, the center position and right side of the line seems set.

The left side is another matter. It wasn’t that Dotson and Moore were terrible in 2022. Both had their moments, particularly around mid-season as the Steelers got their run game going. Often, they found a rhythm running left, where Dotson and Moore played physically and created movement, like we see on this outside zone play against Las Vegas:

Here, on an inside zone run against Baltimore, they combo the 3-tech tackle to the linebacker, knocking him five yards off the ball before Dotson finishes the block with a pancake:

But the flaws in their game often overshadowed the strengths. Dotson could be overly aggressive, which led to bad technique. He often lunged at opposing defenders, making him susceptible to penetration. Dotson was also a liability at times in pass protection. Here, against Tampa Bay, he draws a holding call and gives up a quarterback hit by failing to move his feet effectively. This puts him in bad position to pick up a blitzing linebacker and forces him to reach and grab:

The question surrounding Dotson’s viability as the long-term solution at left guard centers on his consistency. He will punish a defender on one play then get beaten badly on the next. The Steelers must decide if they can fix that habit or whether they must divorce it.

Moore’s run blocking was good enough to prompt The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly to call him the best on the line in that capacity. Moore was especially good when moving his feet to gain position, like we see here as he cuts off Baltimore’s backside 3-tech to create a seam for Harris on this outside zone run:

But Moore struggled in pass protection, which is a huge liability for a left tackle. He was vulnerable to both speed rushes and power moves, with poor technique and communication compounding his problems. Here, against New Orleans, Moore is responsible for the end to his left while Jaylen Warren has the linebacker walked up into the B-gap. The backer and end execute a twist stunt, and Warren switches off. But Moore is slow to recognize it. He gets knocked off balance and blocks no one, and Pickett gets a helmet in his back as a result:

Moore allowed 10 quarterback hits and seven sacks, both of which were by far the most on the team. Like Dotson, he also drew his share of flags. For the offense to improve in 2023, they will need better play from the left tackle position, whether it’s Moore or someone else.

Another factor to examine when considering how the Steelers should proceed with the line is Matt Canada’s scheme. In the run game, Pittsburgh used almost exclusively zone blocking. The zone game is predicated on offensive linemen working in tandem with one another. Interior blocks begin as double teams between the center and guard or guard and tackle, with one player eventually chipping off to pick up a second-level defender. These blocks require timing and communication and can be hard to master without considerable reps between partners.

Gap blocks, on the other hand, are more aggressive by nature and provide better angles. They also utilize pulling linemen, who provide lead blockers for running backs at the point of attack. It’s odd, considering zone blocks require a greater investment, and that Canada ran a good deal of gap as a college coordinator, that this scheme all but disappeared.

I scoured several game films, and outside of an occasional trap play, could not find any true gap runs. Here’s the closest thing — a pin-and-pull sweep against the Jets where receiver Gunner Olszewsky (89) cracks the defensive end and Okorafor pulls out to lead Warren to the edge. It’s a good-looking play that produces a positive result. And yet, by mid-season, this concept had vanished.

Here’s another. This is a sweep RPO from early in the season against Tampa Bay. Okorafor and Daniels are uncovered at the line of scrimmage, so they pull and lead Harris to the right. Pickett has a pass option to Chase Claypool on the opposite side. He takes that option when his read key chases the sweep:

Okorafor and Daniels look good pulling, and their movement displaces Tampa’s defense, which creates space for the pass option. This benefit alone would seem significant enough for Canada to run more of these concepts.

Why didn’t he? Maybe he felt simplifying the rushing attack to focus just on the zone game was the way to go with a young line that hadn’t played much together. I also suspect it had something to do with Dotson’s limited mobility. Canada may have felt he could only pull one way, and that this was too predictable. The offense would benefit next season from gap schemes that open up RPOs and get Pittsburgh’s athletic linemen in space. Whether Dotson is a part of that remains to be seen.

Reports out of Mobile, Alabama, where Senior Bowl practices were held last week, indicated that Mike Tomlin spent a lot of time scouting offensive linemen, and tackles in particular. That may just be Coach Tomlin doing his due diligence. But those same reports in 2021 had him focused on quarterbacks, which is where the Steelers went in Round 1. Pittsburgh has not spent a 1st or 2nd Round pick on an offensive lineman since 2012, when they drafted David DeCastro and Mike Adams with their top two picks. It would not be surprising to see them buck that trend this year.

The draft seems a more likely place for Pittsburgh to look for a starting-caliber linemen than free agency. Free agent tackles, in particular, tend to be over-priced. Among the top players from last off-season, Terron Armstead signed with Miami for $15 million annually but produced lukewarm results due to a host of nagging injuries. La’el Collins went from Dallas to Cincinnati on a reasonable 3-year, $30 million deal but tore his ACL and missed the post-season. The best free agent tackles on the market in 2023, like San Francisco’s Mike McGlinchey, Jacksonville’s Jawaan Taylor and George Fant of the Jets, will either get franchised tagged or command big money. It seems unlikely the Steelers will enter a bidding war for one of them.

My guess is the Steelers will draft a potential replacement for Moore and will then kick him inside to compete with Dotson at left guard. Moore may not have the core strength of a typical interior lineman, but his run blocking is solid, and his athleticism would give them two agile guards to re-integrate the gap game into their rushing attack. Canada may not go heavy on these concepts, but having the option to run them would give him more flexibility than his current scheme provides.

There’s no doubt the offensive line improved in 2022. That improvement should continue next season. Whether it’s with the same starting five is one of the most intriguing questions of the off-season.