Pro football data analysts are keeping track of everything these days. Today it’s no longer enough to know that “the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best offensive lines in recent memory,” as Timo Riske asserted in his most recent column. Now NFL data analysts like Riske are ranking the NFL’s best pass-blocking offensive lines on longer developing plays, among many other things.
In that regard the Steelers ranked quite favorably in 2019, “even though [left guard] Ramon Foster went through a steep decline,” Riske notes.
But because Foster is now retired and seems to have his eye on a career in broadcasting—he recently addressed what was described as ‘the Aaron Rodgers Hypothetical’ on the radio in Nashville, for example—Pittsburgh’s offensive line could be even better in pass protection this season.
Four of Five Starters Return in 2020
In all likelihood, the Steelers will return four starters from last year’s offensive line, though it’s not yet clear if Matt Feiler will start at right tackle or take over for Foster at left guard, which would leave the right tackle job to either Chukwuma Okorafor or Zach Banner. Riske assumes that veteran free agent acquisition Stefen Wisniewski will take over at left guard, who ought to be at least as good as Foster, as Riske sees it.
In terms of the minutiae of Riske’s analysis, he notes his offensive line rankings are based on two things: “Individual performance on plays that are supposed to take longer than other plays,” and “collective offensive line performance on plays that take a long time, no matter whether it is intended or the result of a broken play … with the threshold at three seconds, as only 28% of pass plays observe a quarterback holding onto the ball longer.”
The analysis also adjusts for play action (which helps pass protection buy more time), as well as other situational factors.
Pittsburgh Steelers No. 8 in the NFL
With all that in mind, Riske has the Steelers’ offensive line—including left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro and the aforementioned guard/tackle Matt Feiler—as the eighth best in the NFL, and seventh-best on intended long developing plays.
This bodes well considering the expected return from injury of QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has long demonstrated a knack for making big plays when he has the opportunity to hold onto the ball and improvise.
The team’s wide receivers also figure to benefit from the extra time provided by Roethlisberger and his offensive linemen, especially Diontae Johnson (who has flashed the ability to become a No. 1 receiver), and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has always had good chemistry with Roethlisberger.
Meanwhile, second-round draft pick Chase Claypool is expected to emerge as a deep threat at some point, though the only splash play he’s had a chance to make thus far has come on social media, including his pointed defense of Notre Dame football.
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