Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN – (10)
David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Jerald Hawkins, Chris Hubbard, Mike Matthews, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 1 unrestricted – Chris Hubbard; 1 exclusive rights – Mike Matthews)
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
In terms of total times Ben Roethlisberger was sacked, the 2017 season was the third-best in his 14 NFL seasons. Roethlisberger was sacked 21 times this past season, which was bettered only by the 17 sacks he took in 2016 and the 20 sacks he took in 2015. But in terms of sacks per game, Roethlisberger was sacked 1.4 times per game in 2017, compared to 1.2 times per game in 2016 and 1.8 times per game in 2015, which moved this past season up to No. 2 on the list.
By another metric, that being sacks per pass attempt, 2017 also deserves to be considered the second-best season of Roethlisberger's career when it comes to the punishment he was exposed to while attempting to pass. Roethlisberger was sacked once every 26.7 attempts in 2017, with only 2016 being better, when he was sacked once every 29.9 attempts.
Clearly, the starting offensive line of (from left to right) Al Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert had a good season with respect to protecting the franchise's most important player, and that's where it all has to start every year for this unit.
But the running attack wasn't what it had been recently. What had been the NFL's No. 14 rushing attack in 2016 was ranked No. 20 this past season, and where they averaged 4.3 yards per attempt in 2016 that number dropped to 3.8 yards per attempt in 2017.
The reason for this doesn't rest solely with the offensive line, but the impression is that the Steelers have become more of a finesse offense when it comes to running the football, and that can lend itself to more plays that lose yardage. Short-yardage and goal-line situations dictate a power approach, and the in 2018 the offense must be able to do a more consistent job of moving the defense backward to convert in those situations.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT**
The Steelers had three offensive linemen participate in the Pro Bowl – DeCastro, Pouncey, and Villanueva – and it marked just the second time in the history of that game where the Steelers had three of their offensive linemen participating. The other time the Steelers had three offensive linemen in the Pro Bowl was after the 2004 season when they were represented by guard Alan Faneca, center Jeff Hartings, and tackle Marvel Smith.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2018
The best news for this unit came several weeks ago when Mike Munchak declined a second interview to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, therefore deciding to stay in his current job as the team's offensive line coach. One of the qualities of a good assistant coach is that he makes his players better, and the individual and collective improvement here has Munchak's fingerprints all over that.
The other bit of good news is that the starting five all are under contract for 2018, and in fact four of those five are under contract for longer than that. Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert are bound to the team through the 2019 season, and David DeCastro and Al Villanueva are under contract through the 2020 season. Only Ramon Foster is entering the final season of his existing contract.
There can be one departure expected, because Chris Hubbard has transformed himself from a fringe player hanging onto the roster by his fingernails into a versatile and valuable member of the offensive line because he could play all five positions, as well as having the ability to line up as an extra tight end. It's not a situation where the Steelers are looking to move on from Hubbard, but rather it's a situation where some offensive line-deficient team will pay him more money to become a starter than the Steelers will be able to pay to keep him in his current role.
Still, the Steelers have B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler, and Jerald Hawkins as backups along the offensive line. Finney, who entered the league as an undrafted rookie, continues to develop and has made himself a valuable part of the team by being able to play all three interior line positions. He is the backup center, which is a significant role on every NFL team along the lines of backup quarterback. Hawkins improved significantly from the time training camp opened until the middle of the regular season, thanks to Munchak, and Feiler saw some playing time during the regular season and acquitted himself well.
This should not be taken to mean that the Steelers don't need to explore the possibilities of adding competition to this depth during the offseason, and it's also fair to note that Foster recently turned 32. But compared to most other NFL teams, the Steelers have better than average depth along the offensive line, even with the presumed loss of Hubbard as an unrestricted free agent, and they also will have Munchak to help develop the players they do add during the offseason.