5 for Friday: Steelers' offensive line gelling nicely

When the season began, there were concerns the Steelers' offensive line would be something that might hold the team back.

That's been anything but the case for the majority of this season. In fact, the play of the offensive line has been one of the biggest positive turns that has come out of what has, thus far, been a disappointing season.

No matter the metric viewed, the play of the offensive line has been better – in many cases, much better – than it was a year ago.

Per the web site Football Outsiders, which tracks and measures things such as offensive line play, the Steelers' line ranks 16th in overall line play. That might not sound great, but considering it was 28th a year ago in the same metrics, it's a marked improvement.

The biggest improvements have come obviously in run blocking. The Steelers were at 3.75 yards per play for their running backs last season, with an adjusted line yardage rate (factoring in opponents played) at 3.84 yards.

This season those numbers are at 4.03 and 4.38, respectively.

The Steelers also rank 5th in success of power runs at 80 percent. Last season, their power running success rate was just 17 percent, which ranked 27th in the league.

The team's adjusted sack percentage (again, factoring in opponents played) is up slightly from 5.6 percent in 2021 to 7.4 percent this season, but having a rookie quarterback at the helm this season in Kenny Pickett accounts for some of that increase.

One of the keys for this unit has been continuity. Guards James Daniels and Kevin Dotson, tackles Chuks Okorafor and Dan Moore all have played 100 percent of the team's offensive snaps this season. Center Mason Cole has played nearly 94 percent of the snaps, despite dealing with an ankle/foot injury for most of the season.

It's led to consistent and continual progress by a unit on which all five starters are 26 or younger.

"I think we go back to the beginning of the season, when things weren't quite what we wanted. We were all saying it does take time to do that," said Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "Everybody wants that time to be over however many weeks ago we started, right? I think those guys know where each other is going to be, how they're going to come off of combinations.

"I think our guys have done a really good job of working at it and fighting and clawing and getting better. We're seeing some of that. Again, we're not finished, but those guys are doing a good job. I think, to your point, them being able to continue to stick together is a big part of that."

It bodes well for the future, especially considering all five starters are under contract for 2023, as well.

"Not that we're surprised by that," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of that improvement. "I think that's a reasonable expectation when you're working hard and diligently daily."

There might not be an individual standout among the group, though all have had their moments of success. But as a unit, they're getting the job done, particularly in the running game, where the Steelers have averaged nearly 160 yards over their past four games.

• It used to be that if a punt was going to land inside the 10-yard line, punt returners were told not to field them.

That is no longer the case.

Why?

Quite simply, NFL punters have become too good at dropping the ball inside the 10 and having it bounce out of bounds or killing it there like a golfer sticking a wedge onto the green.

The leader in touchbacks this season is the Giants' Jamie Gillan with eight in his 47 attempts.

That's actually a high number for recent years. Seattle's Michael Dickson led the NFL last season with 10 touchbacks. For the better part of the past 10 seasons, the NFL leader in touchbacks hasn't reached double digits.

It's a far cry different from previous time periods, such as 2006, when the Raiders' Shane Lechler led the NFL with 19 touchbacks.

• Pro Bowl voting is ongoing, meaning players across the league are being touted by their respective teams for the honor.

That's great. It's what teams should do with their players.

One statistic fans should be wary of, however, are tackle stats.

Tackles are not an official NFL statistic because what is considered a tackle in one stadium on a Sunday might not be the case in another NFL stadium.

I can recall a number of years ago when the Steelers were playing in a postseason game reading the press release from the opponent, which stated the team had seven players with more than 100 solo tackles. This happened in a 16-game season.

That made me curious. So, I looked up how many plays that team had run against it that season. I then added up the solo tackles credited to those seven players.

Needless to say, the claim that the team had seven players with more than 100 solo tackles didn't pass the muster.

• Speaking of the Pro Bowl, if Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith isn't honored this season, it will be a crime.

Highsmith is currently tied with Cleveland's Myles Garrett for third in the AFC with 10.0 sacks. He leads the AFC and is tied for the NFL lead with four forced fumbles.

Highsmith has been a solid contributor all season long. And he's done that for a large portion of this season without the benefit of T.J. Watt opposite him.

Having Watt back has helped Highsmith's cause. But when Watt was out, Highsmith was drawing a lot of extra attention himself. And he's still produced.

• Here's an off-the-wall trivia question for Steelers fans regarding the Steelers and Falcons, who of course meet Sunday at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Dome.

The Steelers and Falcons have met 17 times in their history, beginning with their first meeting in 1966. How many different stadiums have they played in?

Despite playing so rarely, Sunday's game will mark the sixth different stadium these two teams have met in during the regular season.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The Falcons called Fulton County Stadium home from 1966 through 1991 before moving to the Georgia Dome in 1992. In 2017, they moved to their current home.

The first three meetings between the two teams occurred in Atlanta, so the Falcons never played the Steelers at Forbes Field. They didn't play their first game in Pittsburgh until 1974.

So, they've played the Steelers in both Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field. The next time the Steelers host the Falcons, it will be at Acrisure Stadium, though that's obviously still the same venue.

As a bonus question, does anyone recall that these two teams met in the 1998 preseason at a venue that wasn't in Pittsburgh or Atlanta?

The venue for that game was Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, W.Va. That means the Steelers and Falcons have met in seven different stadiums, including the preseason.

It was the Steelers' second preseason game at Mountaineer Field. The Steelers and Bengals played a preseason game there in 1968. Imagine that happening now.

Actually, that's what you'd have to do, imagine it, because it's never happening again as long as they're in the same division.

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