The Steelers finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards and yards per attempt. Here’s why their offensive line is largely to blame.
After rushing for over 100 yards for five straight games to begin the 2020 season, Pittsburgh’s rushing attack abruptly fell off a cliff. From Week 7 to Week 17, the Steelers managed 100 yards on the ground just once over their final 11 games. Disgracefully, they had a whopping 6 games where they failed to reach as much as 50 combined yards on the ground.
As a result, Mike Tomlin’s team finished dead last in the league in both rushing yards per game (84.4) and yards per attempt (3.6), according to Team Rankings. In addition, they ranked 31st in the league for rushing first downs per game at just 5.1 – less than half as many as the Baltimore Ravens. Remarkably, Titans running back Derrick Henry managed 676 more rushing yards than the entire Steelers team in 2020.
When going back and reviewing the film, there are a number of players we can point the figure at. But while many Steelers fans are claiming we need to take a running back high in the 2021 NFL Draft, that won’t solve the greater issues at hand.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line collectively ranked 31st in the NFL in terms of run blocking in 2020. In fact, the best run-blocking grade on the team was given to Alejandro Villanueva with just a 60.9 overall score. Every other offensive lineman on the team earned between a 49.0 and a 49.6 grade on the year in this department. Collectively, this team was ranked as the 17th-best line in the league this year (thanks to grading out as 4th in pass protection), but something must be done to improve the run game, and it starts up front.
Steelers offensive line is in need of an overhaul
There are a number of factors that contribute to having the league’s worst rushing attack and the 31st ranked run-blocking offensive line. When Ben Roethlisberger was able to pass the ball down the field more effectively earlier in the season, it kept defenses honest and extra defenders out of the box. However, defenses really started to figure this team out after the first quarter of the season.
Still, I’m not making excuses for the subpar play of the offensive line. Though the pass protection wasn’t an issue (partially because the Steelers got the ball out so quick), the run blocking was a disaster. Pittsburgh has several aging players on their roster who aren’t what they used to be. David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey are coming off one of the worst seasons of each of their NFL careers, while Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler didn’t quite have as good of seasons as they experienced in the past.
In reality, this issue really falls on Kevin Colbert and the Steelers front office. Pittsburgh hasn’t spent more than a third-round draft choice on their offensive line since doubling up on David DeCastro and Mike Adams back in 2012, so it’s no wonder that poor offensive line play is catching up with them. Prior to this, Pittsburgh has relied on the free agents and late-round picks previously coached by Mike Munchak to keep their offensive line afloat.
This isn’t to say that Shaun Sarrett hasn’t done a good job with this group since taking over the offensive line in 2019. They clearly need to get him more talent to work with, as most of these guys aren’t the players they used to be.
We saw the difference adding one fourth-round offensive guard made this year when Kevin Dotson was on the field, but investing in the offensive line shouldn’t end there. The Steelers need to make the offensive trenches a priority if they want to fix the biggest problem at hand.