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The Steelers offensive line construction, Part One: The end of an era

The Pittsburgh Steelers have seen a lot of turnover at various positions over the last few years. Some were very drastic while others took multiple seasons. For example, the Steelers quarterback room for 2024 is filled with 100% new faces for the previous season. Additionally, as I outlined after he was signed, Cam Sutton returns to the Steelers after one season in Detroit to find that none of the cornerbacks in the room played with him in 2022.

Another position group where there has been a lot of necessary change comes on the offensive line. As I began to outline the changes, which began in 2022, I found the evolution of the Steelers line over the last five years to be quite a fascinating topic. For this reason, rather than rush through things, I am beginning a series looking at how the Steelers have revamped their offensive line. But in order to better understand things, let’s recall the information regarding where things begin to fall apart and how the Steelers attempted to work through the issue.

To kick things off, the place to begin to understand how this process has come about is the 2021 season and what transpired after 2020. For that reason, I guess we’ll start with the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers and how they lead into the first step of the offensive line transition in 2021.

For those who may not recall completely, here was the Steelers starting offensive line for the 2020 season:

LT Alejandro Villanueva 
LG Matt Feiler 
C Maurkice Pouncey
RG David DeCastro
RT Chukwuma Okorafor

These are the players that started the majority of games at each position. Of all five, Alejandro Villanueva was the only player to start every game that season. Recalling the right tackle competition which occurred during training camp, it was Zach Banner who beat out Chuks Okorafor for the starting job only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season. But he was not the only offensive lineman to go down in Week 1. Stefen Wisniewski was actually starting at guard to start the year along with Matt Feiler as David DeCastro missed the first two games. But Wisniewski and Banner were lost due to injury on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter.

Okorafor took over the starting job for Banner for the rest of the season, and rookie Kevin Dotson filled in with starts in Week 2 and Week 5 for DeCastro before coming back to the starting lineup the final two games of the season filling in for Matt Feiler. J.C. Hassenauer was another player to get several starts throughout the season both at center and guard whenever he was needed.

After the 2020 season was the biggest transition the Steelers offensive line had seen in many years, and not in a good direction. Maurkice Pouncy retired following the season and the Steelers did not retain Alejandro Villanueva, who left and played one season with the Baltimore Ravens, or Matt Feiler, who left for the Los Angeles Chargers. Additionally, the Steelers released David DeCastro in June, who subsequently retired, because of foot issues. In the course of one offseason, the Steelers had lost four starters on the offensive line, three of which had a combined 17 Pro Bowl selections with Pittsburgh.

So what were the Steelers to do in 2021? Expecting the team to revamp the position during the draft, the Steelers stayed away from offensive line for their first two picks but spent their third and fourth round selections on center Kendrick Green and tackle Dan Moore Jr. Green’s selection in the third round with the 87th overall pick was the first time the Steelers had spent a third-round selection or higher on an offensive lineman since Chuks Okorafor in 2018, who was a third-round section and 92nd overall. To look at the last time the Steelers selected an offensive lineman higher than Green in the draft, it went all the way back to 2012 where the Steelers selected David DeCastro in the first round with the 24th pick and tackle Mike Adams in the second with the 56th overall pick.

With the Steelers severely hampered with what they could do in free agency, whether retaining their own players or signing others, due to the decrease in the salary cap because of lost revenue during the 2020 pandemic season, protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in what was believed to be his final season was something Steelers fans expected to be a high priority. But running back and tight end were the top choices in the draft with the Steelers taking more of a patchwork philosophy for their offensive line in the final year of their Hall of Fame quarterback’s career.

Looking back at the Steelers draft, it may have been an easier decision to select an offensive lineman in the first two rounds had the Steelers realized what was going to happen. As I stated before, the loss of David DeCastro wasn’t known until June, and the only player to start on the offensive line in Week 1 who was returning, Zach Banner, wasn’t able to come back from his knee injury to where he was to start the 2020 season.

For the year, the Steelers starting offensive line for 2021 was as follows:

LT Dan Moore 
LG Kevin Dotson 
C Kendrick Green
RG Trai Turner
RT Chukwuma Okorafor

Once again, the Steelers only had one player start all 17 games in 2021 on the offensive line in the form of Trai Turner who signed following the discovery that David DeCastro would not play another snap in the NFL. Other players who started games on the offensive line in 2021 were tackle Joe Haeg (2), guard/centers J.C. Hasenauer (3) and B.J. Finney (2), as well as guard John Leglue (5). Zach Banner did eventually make it back to the Steelers for seven games but did not have a start.

When it came to replacing the center position after Maurkice Pouncy retired, rookie Kendrivk Green ended up in the spot almost by default. His only competition was the undrafted J.C. Hassenauer, who did end up starting at the end of the season when Green went down and kept the starting job in the playoffs, and a returning B.J. Finney who spent the previous year away from the Steelers between Cincinnati and Seattle where he did not see any significant playing time.

With Zach Banner unable to get back on the field, it was rookie Dan Moore who ended up grabbing the starting left tackle position. Moore was not expected to start, but he did enough to beat out Joe Haeg and Chaz Green with Banner unable to go to start the season.

Looking back at these names at this time, it’s almost an embarrassment that Ben Rothlisberger had to end his career behind this offensive line. Still, the Steelers managed to scrape their way into the playoffs to once again get bounced in the Wild Card round.

As depressing as this may seem looking back at the 2021 offensive line, make sure you tune in tomorrow where we dive into the start of the turnaround which began in 2022 where upgrades were brought in, yet are still not beyond being upgraded themselves.



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