Offensive line hitting its stride at right time for Steelers
No unit on a football team depends on timing and repetition more than the offensive line. That belief even rings true for a veteran group such as the Steelers, whose five starters are in their fourth season together.
With early-season injuries behind them, the Steelers offensive linemen have started to find their rhythm, the evidence coming in back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
James Conner has pieced together consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, and Ben Roethlisberger has gone two games in a row without being sacked, further proof of the line’s dominance.
“There’s a lot of reasons why you should be excited about the efforts of the men up front,” coach Mike Tomlin said last Sunday after the Steelers’ 28-21 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals improved the team’s record to 3-2-1 heading into the bye week.
The reverse was true entering the season. Left guard Ramon Foster missed all of the preseason with a hyperextended knee. All-Pro right guard David DeCastro missed the second and third games with a hand injury. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed the third game with a balky hamstring.
The line also had to adjust to a new starting running back in Conner, who took over when Le’Veon Bell decided to extend his ongoing absence into the regular season.
The five starters -- including center Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva -- have suited up for the past three weeks. That modest streak is worth mentioning because the group, despite its lengthy history together, started only four games together the entire 2017 regular season -- and no more than two in a row.
“I think the offensive line drives our group. It always will,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “Pouncey is recognized as a captain this year by vote, and so that group usually drives most teams. ... Pouncey and the offensive line basically takes on the personality of our group, and that’s why we have to always understand that. And to understand that means that we have to be a physical group.
“We have to be a group that puts the ball in their lap and says, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
The line started hitting its stride in the 41-17 win against Atlanta when Conner rushed for 110 yards and two scores. It continued against the Bengals when he gained 111 yards and scored on a pair of 1-yard runs. In those two games, the Steelers averaged 4.86 yards per rush. In the three previous games, the average per carry was 2.82 yards.
“It all starts with the guys up front,” Conner said. “As they go, we go.”
Roethlisberger also has enjoyed the extra time the line has provided in pass protecting. After being sacked nine times in the first four games, he hasn’t been taken to the ground since. The Steelers also converted a combined 17 of 26 third downs in the back-to-back wins after going 2 for 12 in a loss to Baltimore.
“We just had to find our groove,” Gilbert said. “It took a while, but we got there. We’re just playing good football now.”
Perhaps the bye week came at an inappropriate time for the Steelers. It separated those consecutive wins from upcoming AFC North games against Cleveland and at Baltimore. The latter game will provide the chance for the Steelers to avenge that 26-14 home loss in Week 4.
“Everything that happens starts with us, especially with our success and failures,” Gilbert said. “We have to build on it and be a better group up front each week. We have a ton of challenges ahead of us. We want to continue to get better.”
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