Going into the 2022 season, the Steelers offensive line wasn't getting a lot of love from outside the walls of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Media and fans alike had some harsh words for them, including NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, who said early on "I'm worried. I'm worried regardless of who plays quarterback right now with what I see in Pittsburgh. I'm not calling out any names, but I'm worried as a group."
While some on the outside looking in might have had concerns, those who know best, the men who take the field every day, they weren't concerned, even if they were getting a feel for what was being said.
"I'm not really a person that reads what the media writes and listens to that stuff, but from the questions I was getting asked from the media, I know it was a huge topic of discussion," said guard James Daniels. "But the players that we have are all hungry and the guys on the offensive line, they just wanted to improve. It was nice playing with guys that were improving every day and every week. They came to work from OTAs all the way to the final game. They always just focused on getting better. And that is why the o-line had some success because of the guys in the room."
The line was a relatively new unit in 2022, working together for the first time as a group of five. And they were young too.
Steelers agreed to terms with G James Daniels on a three-year contract
Daniels signed in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, along with center Mason Cole. They joined second-year tackle Dan Moore Jr., third-year guard Kevin Dotson, and tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, a fifth-year veteran one of the 'oldest' on the line.
"There was a lot of stuff for us to adjust to," said Daniels. "We had all the coaching changes with Coach (Pat) Meyers in his first year. Just learning Coach Meyer's technique and playing with each other. That was my first time playing next to Mason or Chuks. Seeing how they fit things differently than I played in the past. It's a mix of a whole bunch of stuff.
"But that's why it's always nice to show up to OTAs. That's why it was great we worked together in the preseason. If we weren't playing in the preseason, our first game in Cincinnati on the road, that's tough for any player if you haven't played in the preseason. I've done that before, not playing preseason. That's very hard to do. It was nice that we were able to do that."
All the group needed was time to work together, time to develop trust with each other. That did start in the preseason when even the line played in every game, seeing plenty of reps.
"Getting to know each other was the key. When I know Chuks is going to set a certain way, it makes my job easier. I don't have to focus on what he's doing," said Daniels. "Or if I know Mason's going to fit in here, then I don't have to worry about what Mason's doing. When you're able to trust your guys at any position and be able to trust people around you, you don't have to worry about them during the game. I learned that I could trust them. During the games, I really wasn't thinking about them. I was just focused on my job. And I knew everybody else was going to do their job.
"It just takes time. You can't improve without time. It's hard to make drastic improvements overnight."
The line, which started all 17 games as a complete unit in 2022, made those improvements through work and a full commitment to what they were doing. At times it meant getting in early in the morning, staying on the field after practice for extra work, and meeting extra at the end of a long day.
"It was good for us because we could just talk," said Daniels. "Practice is scripted, and you don't have unlimited time, but we could be out there after practice longer if we wanted. We could have time and we could talk about what we are doing, plays, stuff like that. We weren't rushing off the field. We weren't rushed to the next practice period or any of that. It was really good the guys stayed after, and they focused on working every day and they did it. We did this from the first week of the season all the way up until our last practice. It was a really good job by the guys just sticking to it. I feel like they believed the extra work does help."
And no doubt, the results showed. The line was the key to the offense getting going after the bye week, aiding tremendously in the team going from 2-6 to 9-8 by season's end.
As they played better, the one thing Daniels noticed, the questions changed in the open locker room media availabilities.
"You could notice the change," said Daniels. "It was cool because it was like were proving them wrong. But that's not what we were trying to do. We were just trying to improve. I felt like we were improving. I do feel like it was right to criticize us, but as a group, we were improving every day, improving every week. We were just doing our job."