By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers have tried to improve their offensive line by addressing it through the draft. They have tried to improve it by implementing a new offensive scheme with a new offensive coordinator. And they have tried, over and over again during Mike Tomlin's tenure as head coach, to improve it by changing the position coach.
When Tomlin hired Mike Munchak last month to be his fourth offensive line coach he might have finally found the man to fix a problem that has festered for years.
Munchak had a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers, and he has a proven track record as an offensive line coach, having spent 17 years in that job for the Oilers and Tennessee Titans before ascending to head coach in 2011.
In addition, Munchak has experience coaching the zone blocking scheme that the Steelers would like to implement with running back Le'Veon Bell and the athletic linemen they have accumulated through the draft in recent years.
One of the reasons Tomlin dismissed Jack Bicknell after last season was the linemen had a hard time picking up the scheme from him and abandoned it early in the season after game planning all spring and summer to have it as a staple.
Zone blocking, which assigns an area for linemen to block rather than specific players, is not new, but it will be for the Steelers.
Munchak's line in Tennessee helped running back Chris Johnson rush for 2,000 yards in 2009. The Titans as a team rushed for 2,592 in 2009.
The Steelers, by contrast, haven't rushed for 2,000 yards since 2007, and they ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing offense last season with 1,383 yards, the fewest for the team since 1966 (when there was a 14-game schedule).
The Titans also protected their quarterbacks well under Munchak's watch. In the past five years, Tennessee gave up an average of 28 sacks per season. The Steelers, in the same five-year span, gave up an average of 43.
Despite the poor rushing statistics and the troubles the Steelers have had protecting Ben Roethlisberger over the years, the cupboard is not bare for Munchak. The Steelers invested two first- and two second-round draft choices in offensive linemen from 2010-2012.
But the best laid plans of the front office have not materialized. Those four linemen -- center Maurkice Pouncey, tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams and guard David DeCastro -- have started exactly one game together. That was the 2013 opener. They took eight snaps with each other before Pouncey was lost for the season with a knee injury, the result of a poorly executed cut block by DeCastro.
Injuries didn't just wreak havoc with the line in 2013.
In 2012, DeCastro missed all but four games of his rookie season with a knee injury. Adams also had his rookie year in 2012 cut short with an ankle injury.
But the injury excuse does not explain all of the unit's problems over the years. Some of the high draft choices have lived up to expectations while others have not.
The interior of the line is solid across the board and has the potential to be better next season. DeCastro rebounded well from his rookie injury to have a solid second season at right guard, and veteran Ramon Foster had another strong season at left guard, especially in pass protection.
If Pouncey bounces back from his ACL surgery to his previous Pro Bowl form, Munchak should not have any problem developing them into a formidable trio in the middle. The only question is how Foster, who is not a perfect fit for a zone scheme, adapts to Munchak's coaching.
While the center and guards are considered the strength of the unit, questions abound at left and right tackle. Gilbert started all 16 games at right tackle, but he allowed 11 sacks, more than any other offensive lineman on the roster. Kelvin Beachum was the starter at left tackle for 11 of the final 12 games after Adams was benched for ineffective play.
Beachum, 6 feet 3 inches and 303 pounds, is undersized for a left tackle, but he drew praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley late in the season for the way he performed. Beachum allowed seven sacks in 11 games as a starter, and he is considered a better pass protector than a run blocker, so it will be interesting to see how he is viewed by Munchak.
Munchak's biggest project might be with Adams, a 6-7, 323-pounder whom some considered one of the top tackle prospects in the 2012 draft. He was moved from right tackle to left tackle halfway through training camp last summer and was assigned the task of protecting Roethlisberger's blind side.
In four games as a starter, Adams allowed four sacks, including three against Minnesota. He was benched for the following game and played more as a third tight end than a tackle for the rest of the season.
The Steelers have some decisions to make when it comes to depth along the line. Fernando Velasco, who started 11 games at center after Pouncey was injured, is an unrestricted free agent as are Cody Wallace, who started the final four games at center, and Guy Whimper, who proved to be versatile in his ability to play guard and tackle.
Given the recent injury history with the linemen, the reserves are important. But Munchak's No. 1 job is tapping into the potential of the high draft picks and whipping them into a better unit. If that doesn't happen next season, the questions surrounding the line will begin to focus more on the players and the scouting because Munchak's credentials are among the best in the business.
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