The Pittsburgh Steelers will arrive this week in Latrobe to begin their work towards a seventh Super Bowl title. Today, I’m previewing the Offensive Line. This is one of the best units in the league but it has work to do and it has to move on without Mike Munchak who left for Denver in the offseason. The run game must get better and more consistent and a starter must be determined for the right tackle spot which was essentially vacated by Marcus Gilbert two years ago due to injury. I’ll be looking at the battle as well as who may grab those eighth and ninth spots.
By The Numbers
2018 Rushing Yards: 1,445 (31st)
2018 Passing Yards: 5,008 (2nd)
2018 Pass Protection: 24 sacks given up (29th)
Maurkice Pouncey (10 seasons)
Pouncey continues to be one of the NFL’s best centers. A seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, he continues to be the anchor of the Steelers’ front. Pouncey brings both leadership and athleticism to the position. His ability to pull right or left gives the Steelers tremendous options in the running game that other teams do not possess. Pouncey has had injury issues in his career missing all of 2013 but he’s been a stalwart over the last several seasons. Along with Ramon Foster, he’s become a steadying force not just on the line but on the team in general.
B.J. Finney (4 seasons)
Finney has proven himself to be an excellent back up at both guard and a serviceable one at center. We have long believed that Finney is much better suited to play guard rather than center. The fact that the Steelers have made him a well-paid reserve speaks to how well they think of him. Had Ramon Foster not returned, Finney would have definitely been the starter at left guard. In other words, he’s the guy in waiting there.
David DeCastro (8 seasons)
DeCastro is a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro selection. He is the aggressive and sometimes down-right feisty guy you need along an offensive line. DeCastro is often quiet and says little in the locker room but it was clear that he had seen enough of the dramatics of previous seasons just by his few comments. As a player he continues to be one of the more dominant pulling guards in football and is blessed with serious smarts that allow him to get into position better than most in pass protection.
Ramon Foster (11 seasons)
Last year at this time I really wondered if it wasn’t the final go for Foster. A free agent when the 2018 season ended, Foster could have probably earned more on the market but chose to stay in Pittsburgh on a two-year deal. As the Steelers’ player representative for players’ union, Foster is a powerful voice in the locker room on those issues but has become one of the team’s great leaders in general. While his pass protection has never been ‘great’ he’s an absolute bulldozer as a run blocker.
Alejandro Villanueva (5 seasons)
The former US Army Captain and two-time Pro Bowler anchors the left side of the line and is responsible for Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. We continue to be impressed with Villy’s consistent improvement. He’s not built like most offensive tackles of his size and early on that was a hindrance. He has learned to use his feet and length more effectively and much of that is probably due to Munchak. How will he do with Munch no longer around?
Matt Feiler (3 seasons)
Entering last season, Chris Hubbard had been Marcus Gilbert’s primary backup. He got a huge payday from Cleveland and when Gilbert went down, Feiler had to step in. He was very good in Gilbert’s stead and now enters 2019 as the front-runner for the starting job. He understands he has two youngsters in Chuks Okorafor and Jerald Hawkins looking to take his job as well.
Chukwuma Okorafor (2 seasons)
Okorafor was a bit of a surprise as a draft pick in 2018 but the Steelers are high on him. A former soccer player, the tackle from Western Michigan is a terrific athlete who has needed coaching and technique work. That now falls on new Offensive Line Coach Shaun Sarrett who replaces Munchak. There are several inside the Steelers’ organization who would like to see Orkorafor become the starting right tackle. He’s going to have every chance starting in Camp.
Jerald Hawkins (4 seasons)
Hawkins has been hit with a number of injuries really dating back to his final season at LSU. That has continued in his time with the Steelers. To put it bluntly, this is his last shot as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. That talent and willingness is there but he has to stay healthy before he can really challenge for a spot on the roster.
Derwin Gray G/T, Damian Prince T, J.C. Hassenauer C, Garrett Brumfield G, Fred Johnson G
Back for Another Go
Patrick Morris C, Zach Banner T
In recent years, the Steelers’ O-Line was pretty easy to predict save for those last one or two spots. This year is a bit different. Villy, DeCastro, Pouncey and Foster will be joined by either Feiler, Okorafor or Hawkins. The remaining two of those guys will battle it out for the all-important ‘Swing Tackle’ position while B.J. Finney is also a shoo-in. That gives you seven guys on the roster. The tough questions begin there. Is the highly athletic Morris technically sound enough now to backup Pouncey? Perhaps Hassenauer who played exceptionally in the now defunct AAF is the man. The Steelers want Finney to be a primary backup at guard but may view him as a decent enough at center to save a roster spot. That’s hard to say and we won’t get an answer till late in the preseason. Gray was the Steelers’ final draft pick in 2019 and he’ll need to show versatility in order to make the roster. One thing I can tell you is that there always seems to be a surprise along the front each year. Who that is in 2019 is anyone’s guess.
My Prediction: Last year the Steelers went with eight offensive linemen on the active roster. I’ll stick to that in 2019.
Tackles: Villanueva, Feiler, Okorafor, Hawkins
Guards: Foster, DeCastro, Finney