I’m a big fan of strong O-lines. A great offensive line can make an average quarterback good. It can make a bad running back look great. Consistent high-level offensive line play almost guarantees a playoff appearance. That’s why I always scratch my head when a team makes a move like the Steelers did last night.
The team announced that they would be releasing offensive guard David DeCastro. DeCastro had played all nine years of his NFL career with the Steelers. He earned three All-Pro nods, and had been selected to the Pro Bowl each of the last six seasons. So, what was the motivation behind this move? Why would the Steelers draft Najee Harris in the first round, then drop their best offensive lineman?
Immediately after announcing their release of DeCastro, the Steelers signed former Los Angeles Chargers guard Trai Turner to a one-year deal. Turner was a 5-time Pro Bowler in Carolina, but missed it last season. In 2020, Turner recorded a PFF grade of 34.8. Yikes! It’s his lowest single-season mark by almost 30 points. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Turner’s production has decreased every year since 2017.
While his penalty numbers were down in 2020, his pass blocking obviously took a step back. Injuries slowed him down and his lack of explosiveness was a big reason why Justin Herbert had to hurry his throws more often than any other quarterback in the league despite being blitzed only 180 times in 2021 — good for 18th in the NFL. Herbert was pressured more than any quarterback outside of Philadelphia and faced pressure on 28.5 percent of his dropbacks — the third highest rate in the league. So, while Turner offers a lot of potential for the Steelers should he return to his 2015-2019 form, any nagging setbacks from his injuries in 2020 would likely stop him from getting back to that peak.
Injuries did become a problem for DeCastro in 2020 as well. The 3-time All-Pro has stated that bone spurs in his ankle were a lingering issue throughout the entirety of last season. He’ll have to get surgery on that ankle for the third time in his career. While this is likely the main reason Pittsburgh decided to release DeCastro, this decision by the Steelers front office does not bode well for recent first-round selection, Najee Harris. If you don’t believe me, I’d like to introduce you to exhibits A and B — Ezekiel Elliott and Joe Mixon.
Both of these backs were drafted with incredibly high expectations coming out of college. They were both immensely talented and quickly became feature backs in their respective offenses — Elliott: Dallas, Mixon: Cincinnati. Their stories are drastically different though, despite following the same principle.
When Zeke first entered the league in 2016, he blew all expectations out of the water. He led the league in rushing and was named an All-Pro his rookie season. The Cowboys had built a team that was ready to install a first-round halfback talent like Elliott immediately. Per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys had the sixth-best offensive line in terms of adjusted line yards the year prior to acquiring Elliott. In Elliott’s first season, the O-line got even better, moving up to fourth in the league.
However, every year since Eliott’s numbers have decreased. His yards per game has fallen off every season of his career. His yards per carry has decreased each of the last three seasons. In 2020, it got so bad that some people even claimed that Tony Pollard, Zeke’s backup, had become the more explosive runner in the Dallas backfield. I wouldn’t go that far. Pollard’s legs are definitely going to be fresher when he enters the game seeing as how Elliott rushes more than twice as often as Pollard.
Another factor though has been the injuries and decreased level of play from the Dallas Cowboys offensive line. Star left tackle Tyron Smith had to miss most of the 2020 season with a neck injury. Center Travis Frederick retired, and guard Zack Martin missed six games as well. Even backups had injury problems with guys like rookie Tyler Biadasz having to miss multiple weeks with a hamstring injury. Elliott recorded the worst season of his career in 2020, and the Cowboys offensive line is only getting worse as the days go on.
As for Joe Mixon, the Bengals running back has shown signs of greatness throughout his career. The only problem is, he hasn’t been able to perform consistently. Every year, analysts and fans predict Joe Mixon to break out, only to watch him fail to meet expectations once again. That’s not his fault though. The guy is tremendously talented. He’s just been hit with a double whammy: poor play-calling and poor offensive line play. We don’t care about the first one, Zac Taylor never should’ve become a head coach to begin with.
However, the offensive line play in Cincy has been atrocious for Mixon ever since he got drafted in 2017. Not once in Mixon’s career has his offensive line reached the top-20 of the league in adjusted line yards. The closest the Bengals’ offensive line ever got to a top-20 finish was 2018, when they finished 22nd in the league in that category, and that’s probably a large reason why Mixon had the best year of his career that season. The Bengals made a large effort to improve their offensive line in 2020. While I personally would’ve preferred to see them draft Penei Sewell and put him at guard, the addition of Riley Reiff and a healthy season from Quinton Spain could help Mixon inch closer to reaching his full potential.
Mixon and Elliott are prime examples of why having a talented running back is great, but having an incredible offensive line works wonders. The Steelers are known for relying heavily on their halfbacks, and that trend has led several people to expect great things out of the former Alabama halfback in his rookie season. He’ll probably catch a lot of passes, and he’ll probably get a lot of carries for a rookie, but because of the inexperience and question marks on the offensive line, it’s likely that Harris will fail to reach those lofty expectations. It’s an unfortunate fate for such a promising prospect to have. Harris has the potential to be a strong 3-down option for Pittsburgh for years to come, but unless the team strikes gold with Turner or improves other areas of that line in future offseasons, Harris may never reach that level of recognition.