THINK OF the NFL units with great reputations—Baltimore's linebackers, Jacksonville's running backs, Minnesota's defensive line—and it's likely that Pittsburgh's offensive line will come to mind. In 2004 the Steelers, behind All-Pro interior linemen Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca, became the first team since the Bears in 1984 to run the ball on more than 60% of its snaps, steamrolling to a 15--1 record. That season they also allowed a respectable 36 sacks. It has long been the Pittsburgh way to maintain a formidable wall in front of the quarterback.
Over the last few years, however, the blockers haven't lived up to that reputation. Though the Steelers ranked third in the league in rushing in 2007, their pass protection softened. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times in the regular season, and in Pittsburgh's 31--29 AFC wild-card playoff loss last January, the Jaguars sacked Big Ben six times. Says veteran wideout Hines Ward, "Quite a few times last year [wide receiver] Santonio Holmes and I would get past our guys deep in the secondary and look back, and Ben would either be on the ground or running from the rush."
Then in March, Faneca, a five-time All-Pro guard and Pittsburgh's best lineman, jumped to the Jets for a five-year, $40 million free-agent deal. As a result, the front five are under the gun.
Few appreciate the impact that coaching and teaching have on position groups. From 2001 through '06 Russ Grimm directed the Steelers' offensive line with an emphasis on physicality. After he left to become offensive coordinator of the Cardinals before last season, Pittsburgh hired Larry Zierlein, who insisted on proper technique first. "Last year was a transition year, getting to know a new style," says Zierlein, 62, who's been coaching linemen in college and the pros for 30 years. "We're continually working on [technique], and we've emphasized blitz pickup. We've got to sight-adjust better, blitz-pickup better and get rid of the ball better."
One thing that has not changed is the bigger-is-better philosophy. The Steelers will pack a lot of beef up front: left tackle Marvel Smith, 6'5", 321 pounds; left guard Chris Kemoeatu, 6'3", 344; center Justin Hartwig, 6'4", 312; right guard Kendall Simmons, 6'3", 315; and Willie Colon, 6'3", 315. Backup right tackle Max Starks is 6'8" and 337 at right tackle. The unenviable task of replacing Faneca falls to Kemoeatu, a fourth-year widebody brawler with a fierce demeanor. "Our job is simple," says Simmons. "We have to give Ben more time. We lost a potential Hall of Fame guard, and we gave up too many sacks. People are going to wonder about us. It's on us to show them we can protect better."
One of Zierlein's goals for his unit is to rank in the top half of the league in fewest sacks allowed per pass attempt. Pittsburgh was tied for last in that category in 2007—Roethlisberger was sacked once every 8.6 attempts, compared with Peyton Manning's 24.5 rate and Tom Brady's 27.5. "A lot is on my shoulders too," says Roethlisberger. "I've got to know when to get rid of it, and I've got to throw the ball away sometimes."
This off-season the Steelers worked on the short passing game more than in any of Roethlisberger's three previous summers. Pittsburgh is counting on the line's improved technique and blitz pickup, plus shorter throws, to drop the sack total into the 20s. That may come down to Kemoeatu's ability to transition into a starting role and play near Faneca's level. Even with perfect technique that's a formidable task.
AFC North supremacy might hinge on Pittsburgh's O-line play versus the improved defensive line of the up-and-coming Browns. "I've seen tremendous progress," Roethlisberger says of his front five. "My offensive line's going to shut up the world."
"People are going to wonder about us," says Simmons. "It's on us to show them we can protect better."
HEAVY TOLL Big Ben has had his bell rung to the tune of 97 sacks in his last 30 games.