Poor performance, retirements play role in Steelers overhauling offensive line

Jun. 26—Less than three years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers had an offensive line that was the envy of much of the NFL.

In 2018, coming off a year in which the team went 13-3 and was No. 3 in the NFL in total offense, the offensive line was coached by a man who some say is the best to ever have done it. The unit featured three Pro Bowl honorees. Major analytics outlets pegged the Steelers as having one of the best lines in the league.

Oh, how things have changed. The Steelers are coming off a year in which the numbers — the basic and the sabermeric — were largely ugly, particularly when it came to the running game. Individually, the Steelers offensive linemen generally didn’t rate too highly, either.

And after almost a decade of stability at the position, the names now are virtually unrecognizable from just a couple years ago.

The release of David DeCastro on Thursday capped a 16-month stretch in which all five starters from 2019 have been cut, retired or left via free agency. Go back to early 2019 and look at the long-trusted names who’ve departed from the position room:

— Unit coach Mike Munchak (left for job with Denver, January 2019)

— Eight-year starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert (March 2019 trade to Arizona)

— Nine-year starting left guard Ramon Foster (March 2020 retirement)

— 11-year center Maurkice Pouncey (January 2021 retirement)

— Three-year, two-position starter Matt Feiler (signed with Chargers, March 2021)

— Six-year starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (signed with Ravens, May 2021)

— Nine-year starting right guard DeCasto (released, June 2021)

Each move was necessary, justifiable or a circumstance outside the Steelers’ control. But any way you look at it, that’s quite the 30-month talent drain at one position group.

“Obviously, we’ve got some change, there’s no doubt about that,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said last week.

“We have to find and fill those roles. But I think up front, the mindset of what we are trying to do, the charge from (team president Art Rooney II) to be more physical, to run the football as an offensive lineman, you are going to like that. We are going to come off the ball, and we are going to do that… I feel really good about where the product will be in the fall when it matters.”

The release of DeCastro means the starter with the most tenure on the line has one season’s worth of games started (17). That man, Chuks Okorafor, is pegged in 2021 to start at a position (left tackle) where he’s never taken a regular-season snap.

The starting right tackle, Zach Banner, has not started and finished a game on the offensive line over four NFL seasons. He’s played 85 career snaps at tackle.

The starter at center will either be a rookie third-round pick (Kendrick Green), a player who bounced around between teams three times in 2020 (B.J. Finney) or a former college backup who has four career NFL starts (J.C. Hassenauer).

A replacement right guard was quickly signed Friday. But even with a resume that lists five Pro Bowls, Trai Turner has been oft-injured (missed 16 games from 2017-20) and increasingly lowly-rated (Pro Football Focus’ third-worst guard in 2020) in recent years.

All that seemingly leaves a second-year former fourth-round pick from Louisiana, Kevin Dotson, as the surest thing on the offensive line. Dotson impressed as a rookie — but his NFL body of work consists of four starts as he readies to take over as the full-time left guard.

“It’s the same things we always talk about — the standard is the standard,” first-year offensive line coach Adrian Klemm said last week. “The expectations are the same. You made it to this level, there’s something that got you here. Now, I want to see that every day.”

The Steelers, likely the result of disgust in a rushing attack that gained the fewest yards in the NFL over the past three seasons, have decided to emphasize a new mentality.

“We call it ‘necessary violence,’ ” Banner said.

“There’s that mindset of trying to hurt somebody — not on purpose, but that thug mentality that we have when we put out helmets on.”

For almost a decade, Pouncey, Foster, DeCastro, Gilbert and Villanueva had voices that carried in the Steelers locker room and on-field mentalities that helped define the team’s identity.

When the dust settles after all the turnover on the offensive line, coach Mike Tomlin is content new leaders will emerge.

“There’ll be enough adversity and enough challenges and enough opportunities to let natural leadership ability show throughout this process,” Tomlin said. “And that’s one of the interesting subplots that I’m interested in watching develop.”

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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