PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line was always going to have a tough learning curve in the 2021 season.
Once a stalwart unit in the NFL, it was left in flux by the departures of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, center Maurkice Pouncey and left guard Matt Feiler. The Steelers have just two returning starters -- including one in Chuks Okorafor, who will get the first crack at moving across the line for the left tackle job.
But that learning curve instantly got even more challenging with right guard David DeCastro's release last week.
Even if the personnel isn’t the same, the unit could still take a step forward from last year’s 51% pass block win rate, which ranked 28th in the NFL and last among the 14 playoff teams, thanks to the philosophy and techniques of new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm and leadership from young players like Zach Banner.
Klemm, who was promoted after serving as assistant OL coach for two seasons, stressed the need to add players with a physical, aggressive mentality during the draft, and Pittsburgh selected center Kendrick Green and offensive tackle Dan Moore Jr. in the third and fourth rounds, respectively.
“Some people just naturally have that -- as a coach you can be demanding of it, but in critical moments of a game when man measures man, whoever you truly are is going to come out,” Klemm said after the Steelers picked Green. “If you have that dog in you, that wolf in you, you are going to continue to do that in critical moments of the game. I love it when I find a guy that I don’t have to bring that out of.”
And Klemm isn’t just relying on the players to self-start their aggression. He’s infusing it in team meetings and drills.
“I feel like there’s a little more intensity with [Klemm],” second-year guard Kevin Dotson said during OTAs. “... It’s more aggressive, more aggression. Even the way we come off the blocks. There is no more getting behind people and blocking. It is more going down the middle of them. Even the verbiage he uses in meetings is more aggressive. It’s not just ‘get to the block.’ It’s like ‘run through his face’ or other stuff that I really can’t say. He’s using more aggressive terms, and I feel like that pushes our mindset in that way.”
Players like Banner, who spent the bulk of last season learning from Klemm during his ACL rehab, can already see a difference.
“We call that necessary violence,” Banner said of Klemm’s coaching technique. “... There’s that type of thug mentality that we have when we put our helmets on. It’s still professional, still structured, but when I look at my guys going out in the tunnel, I’m looking at them and saying, ‘Let’s F'ing go.’ We have that now as a coach.
“... That killer instinct doesn’t come naturally for some guys. Sometimes it has to be coached. So when you have that technician and he’s giving the overall job, he’s rewriting our bible that we live by, the technique, the fundamentals, things that we’re coming out and doing. That’s something he does. ... Some people might cower from that type of pressure and coaching, but our room is full of guys who love that and work well with that.”
Klemm, who presents as a soft-spoken guy, transforms when he instructs his unit, channeling energy and passion he learned as an offensive lineman with the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers and the decade he spent as a college coach.
“I’m demanding of guys,” said Klemm, 44. “We laugh about it sometimes because I get after them. But I’m passionate about it. I love what I do. I take pride in what I do. They’re a reflection of me. We’re a reflection of each other. I’m not going to accept subpar performances or effort. We’re going to make mistakes sometimes, but one thing we’re not going to do is get pushed around. We’re going to get after it. We’re a physical group.”
Some of that physicality undoubtedly took a hit with the release of DeCastro, but the Steelers found an immediate replacement, signing Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner in the days that followed DeCastro’s surprise release. But that hardly solves all the problems faced by a group tasked with protecting 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and paving the way for first-round running back Najee Harris.
Only one job is cemented with less than a month until training camp: Turner’s at right guard. Dotson is almost assured to hold down the left guard spot unless veteran B.J. Finney makes a strong push in camp.
The other three? Those are up for grabs. J.C. Hassenauer, Green and Finney will duke it out at center, while Banner, who’s coming off an ACL tear sustained in last year’s season opener, and Okorafor are the top candidates for the starting tackle jobs. And though the Steelers didn’t use a high draft pick to reinforce the line, they did sign offensive tackle Joe Haeg and guard Rashaad Coward in free agency.
What the Steelers lack in game experience and veteran leaders, they hope they can make up for in attitude and aggression. That should speed up the line’s cohesion in a season in which the offensive margin for error is perilously thin as Pittsburgh chases one more Super Bowl with Roethlisberger.