A top concern surrounding the Steelers heading into the offseason was how a re-tooled offensive line would perform in 2021. Just how are a bunch of young players with little to no experience going to protect the aging, immobile Ben Roethlisberger?
No one knows the answer to this question, not even Ben Roethlisberger.
“There are questions,” Roethlisberger shared in an August 3 interview with SiriusXM’s “Movin’ the Chains.”
“Anybody that plays line or knows anything about football knows that it’s about cohesiveness up there. And that’s what we’ve always had here.”
The unit took a huge hit this offseason when it lost three Pro Bowl players. Maurkice Pouncey, who Roethlisberger often called his best friend and “comfort blanket,” retired suddenly after 10 seasons in February. The O-line also lost Alejandro Villanueva, who went to loathed rival Baltimore Ravens, and veteran Matt Feiler, an established starter with 46 games under his belt. Additionally, David DeCastro, a stalwart Steeler, also retired amid injury concerns.
“Those guys played together for a good chunk of time,” said Roethlisberger. “That cohesiveness, knowing that guy to your left, knowing that guy to your right. … They’re on a fast track; they’ve got to learn each other really quick. There are going to be bumps in the road.”
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With Pouncey no longer providing Big Ben comfort, Pittsburgh selected offensive lineman Kendrick Green in the third round of the 2021 NFL draft. According to multiple reports, Green had a less-than-stellar offseason; still, he appears on the Week 1 depth chart as the starting center.
A Banner Year
A key piece to the offensive line puzzle is third-year right tackle Zach Banner. Banner has the most experience of the O-line corps – only he was sent to injured reserve on September 1. Banner, who the Steelers signed to a $10 million contract in March, suffered a torn ACL in the 2020 season opener. After such a devastating injury, the team slowly incorporated Banner back into the offense. Even then, there were no summer reps and, according to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, he sat out the first two weeks of training camp. After a gradual increase in reps, Banner was ready for live game action.
Or was he? Though Banner played well in the 12 preseason snaps versus the Detroit Lions, all signs pointed to a setback during his first start nearly one year removed from ACL surgery.
Thanks to new rules carried over from the 2020 NFL season allowing players to return after three games (instead of eight weeks), the high hopes the Steelers have for Banner’s bounce-back season can still be realized. The tackle is eligible to return on October 3 for a crucial home game against the Green Bay Packers.
In the meantime, the spotlight is on rookie Dan Moore Jr. to perform well in Banner’s absence.
Could the Steelers Have Done More?
Injuries are an inevitable, unfortunate part of football, as Banner knows too well. What is Pittsburgh to do if injury-prone guards Trai Turner (acquired in June to replace DeCastro) or Kevin Dotson go down? Promote someone from the practice squad — to protect Big Ben? Like it or not, Roethlisberger is the key to this franchise winning (or losing) in 2021.
All of this begs the question: Why didn’t the Steelers do more to bolster their offensive line this offseason? Hindsight is 20/20, but Pittsburgh could quickly find itself in a pickle if things fall apart.
“They’ll be ready on the 12th,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said in a press conference on August 30.
Let’s hope Mike’s right.