The Pittsburgh Steelers have a two-game winning streak, and the offensive line deserves some credit for their improvement as of late.
As a team, their play has improved, which, if you know anything about the Pittsburgh Steelers, their historical team tendency is to play poorly early in the season while gelling and having much better performances late in the season. This has allowed them to win three of their last four games. One can argue that some of their team success late in the season is because T.J. Watt returned from his pectoral injury. Yes, his return came at the right time and was sorely needed and helped provide that defensive spark to help them play better.
One might argue that Kenny Pickett has started to mature and play better. You could point to the New Orleans game as proof of that maturation when he put together a needed second-half drive culminating in a touchdown proving to be the difference in the game, giving them a victory. In either case, Kenny Pickett’s play and the return of T.J. Watt have played a significant factor. Yet there may be another factor, perhaps more important, which might be the offensive line.
Steelers offensive line improves
There is no doubt that the Steelers struggled offensively early in the season. Much of that had been laid on the shoulders of Matt Canada, and rightfully so. However, the play of the offense was not very good. Tackle Dan Moore arguably played the worst of all the starters.
In that time frame, the Steelers running game seemed missing in action. With that, opposing defensive linemen spent way too much time in the Steelers backfield. Then after the bye week, the Steelers offensive line gelled, and they played much better. Don’t believe it? That, it’s understandable, but the proof, they say, is in the pudding.
Pittsburgh’s rushing game is heating up
For proof that the offensive line is playing much better, first, let’s look at the Steelers rushing game. The Steelers rushing game performances have been day and night since the bye week. Before the bye week, the Steelers had 759 total rushing yards. That equaled 94.875 rushing yards per game.
If you take quarterback rushing yards, the Steelers running backs and wide receivers only rushed for a total of 79.0 yards per game. Between Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett, they both rushed for 127 yards of the 759. Meaning the quarterbacks factored in just slightly less than 17% of all Steelers rushing yards in that span. A total of 15.875 yards per game. Then came the bye week.
Since the bye week, here is how the Steelers running game has fared. In the four games since the bye week, the Steelers have rushed for 645 yards in four games. That’s a whopping 161.25 yards per game. In a 16-game season that would come to 2580 rushing yards a season. You have to go back to 2004 and earlier to find rushing totals that high in an entire season, and they have done that in their last four games.
Kenny Pickett rushed for 111 yards in the last four games in the same span, thus increasing the quarterback’s share of team rushing yards to about 17.2%. Considering Ben Roethlisberger only had 144 rushing yards in his first season Pickett already has 209, and the season is not over. Proving Pickett is in line to be the Steelers most mobile quarterback since Kordell Stewart.
Certainly, if the Steelers offensive line played as poorly in their last four games as they did their first eight weeks, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers could be rushing the ball as well as they have since the bye week.
Steelers passing game still needs some work
The raw stats here might seem a little paltry in comparison. In the first eight games, the Steelers passed for 1633 yards averaging 204.12 per game. However, factoring in total yards per game, they only averaged 299 total yards per game. Since the bye week, the Steelers have passed for 759 total yards. That’s a 189.75 yards per game average, not a stellar stat by any measure.
Yet they also have 1404 total offensive yards upping their average to 351 total yards per game. So while they are not passing for as many yards, they are still moving the ball much better overall. The fact that Pickett has to rush more still shows some issues with the passing game, which in part is Matt Canada’s play calling.
Perhaps this is a more telling stat in the passing game. Pittsburgh’s offensive line gave up 21 sacks in the first eight games, 2.65 per game. In the last four games, the Steelers have only allowed 11 sacks. While the sacks per game average are slightly higher than the first eight weeks, the number of sacks has decreased as Kenny Pickett’s performance has improved. Still, the sack rate is poised to drop in the last half of the season compared to the front half.
However, the most telling stat is in the interception department. The Steelers threw nine interceptions in the first eight weeks. In the last four games, they have thrown no interceptions. Like all of the passing stats in the last four games, Kenny Pickett’s improvement as the season has progressed contributes to this success. This a true statement for sure, yet there is still no doubt that the Steelers offensive line has improved as a collective unit and helped them play better in the back half of the 2022 season.
Do not take this thesis as an argument that there are still no problems with the offensive line. No, that would not be true. They are playing better as a unit, however. Because they are playing better, the question now becomes who the Steelers eye as their first-round draft choice in the 2023 draft.
Before the New Orleans game, the easy argument would have been to take the best offensive tackle; with the improvements, perhaps they could take an offensive lineman in the 3rd or 4th round while addressing a larger need.
While Pittsburgh’s offensive line may need further improvement, it’s nice to know that it’s no longer their biggest liability either.