PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' offensive line has been beaten up in more ways than one ever since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
Could the oft-maligned unit become a reason why the Steelers win next season? Don't scoff.
David DeCastro has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber guard this season. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is expected to return in 2014 from a torn ACL. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum has played well enough that the Steelers may not have to target the position with their first pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
“The biggest problem with the offensive line,” former NFL scout and ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said, “is they can't ever start the same five guys.”
Injuries have long been the X factor along the offensive line and any optimistic forecast for its future has to come with the caveat that the Steelers, for whatever reason, cannot stay healthy up front.
Assume for the sake of argument that the line isn't as wracked by injuries next season as it has been in recent years. DeCastro, Pouncey and left guard Ramon Foster would give them a strong interior around which to build.
That is especially true in the case of DeCastro, whom Williamson said has already established himself as one of the top five or six guards in the NFL.
“He doesn't have a major weakness,” Williamson said. “He can run the power stuff. He can pass block. There's a lot to like about him.”
Williamson echoed similar sentiments about Beachum, who took over at left tackle after the fourth game of the season and has earned glowing praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
The 6-3, 306-pound Beachum is not a prototypical left tackle, and teams generally find protectors for their quarterback's blind side near the beginning of the draft not the end of it.
But Beachum, a late seventh-round pick in 2012, is proving to be the exception to several rules.
“I'm starting to come around on him,” Williamson said. “He might he good enough and he seems to be getting better.”
The 2014 draft is supposed to be deep at offensive tackle, and if the Steelers use their first pick on a potential franchise left tackle, Beachum would still have a key role on the team -- whether he serves as a super sub who can play all five positions or bolsters the line at another position.
The play of DeCastro and Beachum this season is the biggest reason for optimism for the offensive line, and Mike Adams still has time to develop into a long-term starter up front, whether it is at left or right tackle.
Injuries can scramble the offensive line throughout the season as the Steelers well know. But the investment they have made in their line in recent drafts could really start to pay off next season.
If the group can stay relatively healthy.