The Steelers are looking like the Steelers again. The old-school Steelers. The ones who ran the ball down defenses' throats and wore down teams late in games.
The change has been initiated by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The plan has been carried out by the unlikeliest of players -- the Steelers offensive line. Bashed the past few years for being the weak link of the offense, the linemen have flexed their muscles during Pittsburgh's three-game win streak and have become the backbone of an attack that will be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the season.
The Steelers' offensive line has been the most improved unit. It has been the most dominant one recently. And, at the midway point of the regular season, these linemen have been Pittsburgh's most valuable players.
Establishing chemistry and a nasty attitude, the offensive line turned a Steelers run game, off to its worst start in 62 years, into a surprisingly successful one. Pittsburgh has produced a 100-yard rusher in three consecutive games. How big of a role has the line played? When Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman were hurt, the line opened holes for Jonathan Dwyer to gain more than 100 yards in back-to-back games. When Dwyer and Mendenhall were sidelined last Sunday, this line paved the way for Redman to crack 100 yards.
The message is clear: This line gives running backs a chance to succeed. The difference has been the push generated off the line. In the first five games of the season, Steelers running backs were hit in the backfield 19.8 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the past three games, runners have been hit in the backfield just 12.1 percent of the time. If Redman gets hurt again, maybe Jerome Bettis could suit up and gain 100 yards against the Chiefs on Monday night.
In the past, the offensive line drew more criticism than compliments. The high number of hits on Ben Roethlisberger and the problems in the running game used to be blamed on the line.
"Everyone wants to jump on (the offensive line) when they’re not playing good, but no one talks about them when they’re playing great,” Roethlisberger said recently.
During an offseason in which president Art Rooney II made it a priority to run the ball better, the Steelers had hopes of improving the offensive line although they had a different vision for it. Pittsburgh used its first two draft picks this year on guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams. But DeCastro suffered a severe knee injury in the preseason and Adams didn't win the starting job in training camp.
The difficulties with the rookies weren't the only hurdles that this line had to face. There were question marks on the left side of the line, where tackle Max Starks was months removed from ACL surgery and guard Willie Colon was converting from right tackle. Instead of having a first-round pick in DeCastro at right guard, the Steelers went with Ramon Foster, who was undrafted three years ago. There was even an issue with two-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who had to sit out a game because of a knee injury.
Where the line came together was Oct. 11, when Adams stepped in for Marcus Gilbert after he injured his ankle. Adams has moved defenders off the line of scrimmage, and the Steelers started to build cohesion that didn't exist a year ago. Last season, the Steelers used an NFL-high 26 different offensive line combinations, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In eight games this season, the Steelers have used six different offensive line combinations.
This line was a work-in-progress early. After three weeks, the Steelers ranked 30th in rushing yards per game (65.0) and were tied for last in yards per carry (2.6). No running back had cracked 50 yards in a game, much less 100.
Over the past three games, Pittsburgh gained 155.0 yards rushing per game and 5.1 yards per carry. Colon and Foster have been equally athletic and aggressive in pulling from one side to another on the team's counter plays.
The line has played so well that there are no guarantees that Gilbert and DeCastro will get back their starting jobs once healthy. Gilbert could be available for next week's game against the Ravens, and DeCastro might be ready by December. This isn't a problem, though. Having too many solid options is a luxury.
By next season, Gilbert is expected to take over at left tackle and DeCastro will take back his spot at right guard. For now, the Steelers might not want to mess with continuity. Starks said the success in the running game goes beyond consistency on the offensive line.
"By committing to a primary runner as opposed to a runner by committee has also played a big role in that," Starks told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week. "Having a guy know he can run -- and if it doesn't go well, they're going to shelve him and put a guy in for couple plays. Knowing you're committed to him and allowing him to get a feel for the game, to get into a rhythm with us, I think that's the biggest thing, having that continuity."
Roethlisberger remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Mike Wallace is still one of the fastest receivers. And tight end Heath Miller is a reliable target in the red zone. They can all make plays when they need to do so. But the pressure is not all on them anymore.
The Steelers have returned to their roots with this physical style of football, which makes them more balanced and stops pass-rushers from teeing off on Roethlisberger (he's only been sacked 17 times in eight games after suffering 40 sacks last season). They're wearing down teams with the second-best time of possession in the NFL and they're finishing off teams in the fourth quarter. The Steelers haven't been able to do this in recent years. But they haven't had this strong of a line during that time either.