Don’t blame the players for Steelers offensive line woes, blame Tomlin

Pittsburgh’s offensive linemen have been blamed often for 2022 struggles, but here’s why it’s the Steelers head coach who deserves to have the finger pointed at him. 

Looking at the comment section at Still Curtain and other Steelers fan sites you see blame getting thrown all around for the team’s anemic offense. You see Najee Harris getting blamed; you see Matt Canada getting blamed. Justifiably, to an extent, you see the offensive linemen getting blamed. Some ‘fans’ even went so far as to send death threats to left guard, Kevin Dotson’s Twitter feed.

I think that blame is misplaced. I also think the ‘death threat’ thing is not something Steelers fans do. That’s more like the behavior of Bengals fans. I don’t think any of the players should be blamed. There is really only one person who should be shouldering the blame, and that person is head coach, Mike Tomlin. While adding players is the general manager’s job it’s the HC’s job to make sure he gets the players he needs. Also, Tomlin has much more say in this area than most head coaches in the NFL.

Last year I couldn’t believe Tomlin was going into the regular season with the offensive line that had been cobbled together due to free-agent departures, injuries, and retirements. Well, he did and the result was a disaster. I wrote an article about that and you can read it here.

I thought the Steelers decision makers realized they had to address the problem in the off-season. They did not. They didn’t re-sign Trai Turner who was arguably the best player on the o-line in 2021. They added middling players, center/OL, Mason Cole, and center/OG, James Daniels, and declared the problem fixed. The season to date has clearly shown it was not.

I figured Daniels was here to start at center and Cole was brought in to be competition for J.C. Hassenauer. In no way did I think Cole was going to be anything more than a sub. As I’m sure you know, he’s starting. So, what we’ve got for another year, is an under-performing starter at center, arguably the second most important position on the line.

Although he is an upgrade from the hapless Kendrick Green, Mason Cole has looked weak at center. James Daniels at right guard has been okay but nothing to write home about. Right tackle, Chuks Okorafor, is the same mediocre commodity he’s been since his rookie season. The left side of the line has been a complete and total disaster. Left tackle, Dan Moore, was the worst player on what was probably the worst offensive line in the NFL, last year.

The Steelers coaches had to be delusional to think he would suddenly get better. Kevin Dotson showed promise in 2020 when he was thrust into the starting lineup at right guard for an ailing David DeCastro. Since then he’s been consistently underperforming at left guard.

Getting back to the blame thing, this is not Kevin Dotson’s fault. He’s a backup-caliber player who has been shoved into the starting lineup at left guard, one of the most demanding O-Line positions. It’s not his fault he isn’t up for the task. He never should’ve been put in that situation, to begin with.

I still think Dotson has the potential to be a serviceable right guard. Right guards are often helping out with double teams. Left guards usually have to have to fend for themselves against the best of the opposition’s front seven. If the Steelers do what I hope he’d also be sandwiched between two better players and farther away from Dan Moore who has no business being in an NFL uniform, anywhere.

How has the Steelers offensive line gotten to this point?

I thought, for sure the team would address the line in the Draft. It was a deep and talented class and they’d have plenty of opportunity to add talent. I didn’t like any of the quarterback prospects and I thought Kenny Pickett was a reach as a first-round pick. So far, he’s playing pretty well, so he may pan out. The blue-chip left tackles had been picked over by the time the Steelers selection came up.

I liked OT, Bernhard Raimann and even though I mocked him to the Steelers I could understand passing on the position in the first round. I figured the next pick would be on the offensive line. Instead, we got a wide receiver (admittedly a good one). Then, in the third round, UCLA standout OG/OT, Sean Rhyan was available. Again, the Steelers pass him over for a defensive end. Rhyan made the Packers roster and is currently listed as RG2.

I was positive the fourth-round pick would be a lineman. Center/OG/OT, Zach Tom, of Wake Forest was still on the board. Instead, the Steelers make a luxury pick in the undersized WR, Calvin Austin. Tom also made the Packers roster and is listed as RT2.

The main sleeper prospect I was watching all year, Ohio State OT, Thayer Munford was still there in the sixth round. Surely, the Steelers can’t pass him up. Wrong again, the Steelers go for that ultra high priority pick, a third-string tight end/H-Back.

Then to my surprise, Munford was still available when the Steelers were up in the seventh round. Surely, they can’t pass on him, now… Stupid me. They draft an inside linebacker who was a converted running back, Mark Robinson. So far, Robinson hasn’t played a single defensive snap. He’s has logged just 5 special teams snaps all season.

Munford is in a fight for a starting job at right tackle and is the reason the Raiders found Alex Leatherwood expendable, btw. The Raiders have been using him extensively in their double offensive tackle rushing packages. Watching the Red Zone, Raiders vs. Texans, Jermaine Eluemunor who’s the incumbent Munford has been battling left the game with an injury. All the snaps I saw Munford looked very much in control of the position. My guess is he could’ve easily beat out the abysmal Dan Moore.

By Pittsburgh’s second seventh-round pick, all offensive line positions had been picked over. The Steelers ended up drafting NO line help. They didn’t even add competition. Rhyan, Tom, and Munford, all, could’ve competed for starting jobs.

Then, right before the season started I was excited to hear the Steelers had traded for an offensive lineman. I thought, finally, they’ve realized Dan Moore is a dead end. I’m sure you’ve guessed, I was wrong, again. On the same day they cut serviceable veteran lineman Joe Haeg, they added OT, Jesse Davis. Haeg had a 67.7 overall grade on Pro Football Focus in 2021. Jesse Davis had a 52.5 overall grade.

The Steelers had achieved the impossible. They found an offensive tackle worse than Dan Moore. Davis is also two years older than Haeg. So, the Steelers released a player who was a proven commodity and knew the system, then gave up draft capital for a player who is older, unfamiliar with the system, and is, at least according to PFF, markedly worse. So far, I’m unimpressed with Omar Khan’s tenure as general manager.

I’ve been noticing, under the Tomlin regime, the Steelers brass seems to talk themselves into thinking a player is better than he actually is. I’d cite Artie Burns, Sean Davis, James Washington, and Dan Moore as examples. I’m sure you have a number of others you could add to this list.

How bad is the Steelers offensive line In 2022?

How bad is the Steelers offensive line? Plenty bad. I would argue that all their pass-blocking grades are padded due to Matt Canada’s ultra-fast, dink-and-dunk passing schemes. If the Steelers quarterbacks held onto the ball as long as others in the league I’m sure they’d be leading in sacks allowed. As it is, it’s plain to see they’re getting knocked into the backfield on every play, be it pass or run.

I use Pro Football Focus because they’re the only organization that provides grades for offensive linemen. They’re also the only ones who keep track of QB hits and pressures. Their grades are admittedly subjective but they do provide a fairly accurate metric. If you see a lineman performing badly they have a corresponding bad PFF grade. The numbers below are from the season up to the Eagles game.

Pro Football Focus Grades and Stats:

LT – Dan Moore – 6 penalties, 3 sacks, 20 pressures. Overall  55.1, Pass Blocking  62.8, Run Blocking 50.5.

LG – Kevin Dotson – 8 penalties, 3 sacks, 9 pressures. Overall 65.1, Pass Blocking 68.3, Run Blocking 65.5.

C – Mason Cole – 0 penalties, 2 sacks, 14 pressures. Overall 64.1, Pass Blocking 58.3, Run Blocking 64.7.

RG – James Daniels – 4 penalties, 0 sacks, 9 pressures. Overall 70.2, Pass Blocking 76.6, Run Blocking 63.8.

RT – Chuks Okorafor – 4 penalties, 1 sack, 21 pressures. Overall 64.8, Pass Blocking 62.4, Run Blocking 65.9.

Dan Moore is, by far, the worst starter on the offensive line. It’s not just that he isn’t starter quality, he’s not an NFL quality player on any level. I severely doubt any team would pick him up if the Steelers cut him. If he managed to get signed my guess is it’d be for the practice squad and even that might be short-lived. As I’m posting the Steelers were in a position to take the lead when Dan Moore had a drive-killing holding penalty against the Dolphins. That penalty majorly contributed to them losing the game. #WorstOffensiveLinemanInTheNFL

The Steelers are near the bottom rushing for yet another year, currently in 29th place. In 6 games (up to the Eagles) they have 190 rushing attempts for 759 yards at 4.0 yards per.

The running backs have not put up a single 100-yard game. If you watch the O-Line, play after play, they are getting knocked into the backfield on almost every run. They only create holes on maybe two or three plays a game.

The only success the rushing game has had is when they run to the right side. Mason Cole is a liability as a straight-up blocker but he’s good at pulling and so is James Daniels. Against the Buccaneers they ran almost exclusively to the right, avoiding Moore and Dotson. Since then, they been using that running scheme, a lot.

Can the Steelers offensive line be fixed?

I sincerely doubt the solution to this problem is on the Steelers current roster. I’m not sure what can be done to save the season. They decided not to address the O-Line, at all, before the trade deadline. Maybe some linemen could be claimed from another team’s practice squad. I’d be surprised if that happened. Out of the many roster and practice squad moves Omar Khan has made he hasn’t added any offensive lineman except for the very below-par Jesse Davis.

Next year, if they want to have any success on offense, the Steelers should draft the best available offensive tackle and offensive guard in the first two rounds. That should give them at least starter-quality players at LG and LT. They should move Daniels back to his natural position at center. I’d keep Okorafor for at least one more season. At least he’s a more or less average starter. Then they could bring in a free agent OG and let him and Dotson and Cole fight it out for right guard. If they do something like that a lot of the O-Line problems might be solved.

We can only hope for Kenny Pickett’s and Najee Harris’ sake that Tomlin has learned his lesson. He needs to let his general manager know to make the offensive line a priority next year.

Go Stillers!