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With Arthur Smith on board, the Steelers must now solidify their offensive line

Arthur Smith has been hired as the new offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the masses are predictably divided in their response. Some love it, some not so much. Others are left pining for someone else. In the end, none of it means very much since Smith won’t call a meaningful play for the Steelers for seven months. That won’t stop us from reading, writing, studying and leaving no stone unturned between now and then in our quest to decide if the Steelers hired the right man for the job or simply another in a growing line of feckless offensive architects. Speculation is as American as apple pie and rampant debt.

I’m optimistic about Smith. Take that for what it’s worth, since I was optimistic about Matt Canada, too. That’s the danger of being an optimist — it sets you up for disappointment. But Smith and Canada are very different cases. With Canada, the optimism hinged on his ability to take a creative approach to what he did pre-snap — an approach, by the way, that was lauded by coaches like Andy Reid and had earned Canada the title of “pre-snap guru” — and incorporate it into an NFL offense. The success Canada achieved that landed him the Pittsburgh job had come solely at the college level. The Steelers took a flyer on his potential and missed spectacularly.

It is precisely because of that failure that they decided on Arthur Smith. Smith has a proven track record of success in the NFL as a play-caller, having directed effective offenses in Tennessee in 2019-2020 before landing a head coaching gig in Atlanta. The Canada debacle made Smith’s experience particularly attractive, which in turn led them to bypass up-and-comers like Klint Kubiak and Jerrod Johnson. Fans who aren’t thrilled with the Smith hire contend that Kubiak and Johnson, while lacking play-calling experience, have been successful with developing quarterbacks. Kubiak did it with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota and Brock Purdy in San Francisco, while Johnson was integral to C.J. Stroud’s growth in Houston. Smith, on the other hand, struggled to bring Desmond Ridder along in Atlanta. With Kenny Pickett’s development crucial to the success of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2024, it’s easy to understand why some fans are wary.

Whether Smith can get Pickett to the next level is a legitimate concern. I did a deep dive on Smith’s passing game in Atlanta in the You Tube link posted below, and my conclusion is that his system is user-friendly and is structured to make life easy on the quarterback. The fact Ridder failed to develop in it could be an indictment of the player himself, or perhaps of Smith’s ability to teach the system. But the system itself is friendly, which represents progress out of the gate from what Pickett endured the past two seasons. Again, consider me optimistic.

Meanwhile, all the attention on whether Smith can develop Pickett has pushed another major issue to the margins. There is no question that Pickett’s development should be the team’s top priority this off-season. But to maximize the potential of Smith’s offense, the Steelers must make some improvements along the offensive line as well.

Smith’s offense works best when it can establish the run. From there it is built to create explosive plays through play-action passes, bootlegs and in-breaking routes that attack areas of the field defenders have voided to play the run. He loves using big personnel groupings to get the run going. No team ran more 12-personnel sets last year — one back, two receivers, two tight ends — than Atlanta. When the Falcons didn’t have two tight ends on the field, they often replaced one with a traditional fullback. Sometimes they aligned with all of the above — two tight ends, a fullback and just one wide receiver. Competition for reps and targets at the receiver position should be fierce next season given Smith’s affinity for big personnel. Whether that creates (more) dissention among Pittsburgh’s receivers remains to be seen. It’s no mystery how Smith wants to operate, though. Big guys, compressed formations, pounding the rock.

Smith had great success with this formula in Tennessee, where his rushing offense ranked number two in the league in 2019 and number one in 2020. His offenses finished ninth and fifth in DVOA in those seasons, respectively. In Atlanta, the passing game struggled but he still managed to produce two Top-10 rushing attacks in his three seasons on the job.

In both places, Smith was able to do so in large part because he had excellent offensive lines. His line in Tennessee ranked among the top five in the league per PFF in both 2019 and 2020. In Atlanta, all three of his units finished ranked in the top ten.

The line in Pittsburgh hasn’t finished better than 15th in the PFF rankings since 2018. The current unit has a few pieces to work with, but needs help in certain areas. Free agent acquisition Isaac Seumalo was Pittsburgh’s best lineman in 2023, giving up zero sacks on over 500 pass-blocking snaps and providing a physical presence in the run game. Rookie Broderick Jones improved steadily once he was inserted into the starting lineup and showed flashes of becoming a dominant player. Jones could be a star in the making. Right guard James Daniels is solid if not spectacular and has done enough in his two years in Pittsburgh to earn him a third season as the starter.

The problem areas are at center and left tackle. Mason Cole is a cerebral player who does a nice job calling protections and getting everyone on the same page. But he’s just not physical enough to anchor the center of a run-heavy offense. Cole was routinely overpowered this past season by some of the league’s better interior defensive linemen. Those struggles were compounded later in the year as his snaps became unreliable. This may have occurred because Cole was rushing to get his hands up to make first contact while blocking, the effect of which often required the quarterback to take his eyes off of the defense to focus on catching the snap. That may have contributed to the quarterbacks processing coverage more slowly, particularly in Pickett’s case.

As for left tackle, Dan Moore Jr. was one of the worst pass protectors in the league, giving up seven sacks and 51 pressures on 484 snaps. Moore is a strong run blocker, but the left tackle must be an anchor in protection. The Steelers cannot go into the 2024 season with Moore as their left tackle if they expect the offense to improve.

With limited cap space this off-season, it seems unlikely Pittsburgh will make a big splash in free agency to address their needs up front. A more realistic scenario would be for them to kick Jones over to left tackle, which is his natural fit, and to allow Moore and Chuks Okorafor, or perhaps a mid-level free agent signee, to vie for the starting job. The Steelers could also look to bookend Jones with another first round tackle, where players like J.C. Latham and Amarius Mims could be available. I’d expect the Steelers to address their need at center by taking one early in the draft. Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson has attracted a lot of attention in terms of potential links to Pittsburgh, as has West Virginia’s Zach Frazier. It seems unlikely the Steelers will use their first and second round picks on offensive linemen, particularly with all five starters from 2023 under contract. But one of those picks will almost certainly be used to bolster the unit.

However it shakes out, you can’t bring in Arthur Smith as offensive coordinator unless you’re going to provide him the tools he needs to make his offense successful. Historically, that means a big, physical group up front to establish a ground-and-pound attack that runs the ball well and uses the run to set up the pass.  Finding upgrades at center and at left tackle, whether in-house or from the outside, is a must. Second to Pickett’s development, this is the most pressing issue the Steelers must address over the next few months.

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