The Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting offensive line has arguably been the biggest question mark of their 2022 roster heading into training camp. Outside of the quarterback competition, every other position group has a key player or more who’ve proven themselves as contributors for the team in action.
The group is mostly settled on their starters outside of an even battle between Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green. But those starters still need to prove they can be a productive line to block for Najee Harris and protect whoever’s the starting quarterback.
But if you ask James Daniels, whoever several of lineman have labeled as the leader of their group, he’s seen progress.
“I can tell everyone did a lot of work during the break,” Daniels said. “Just seems like with technique and how people look now compared to minicamp, the guys did a really good job of working their technique.”
Multiple offensive lineman noted their appreciation for new offensive line coach Pat Meyer’s approach to coaching them up during minicamp. Now when the group listens to Meyer in meetings, Daniels has seen the younger linemen in Kevin Dotson, Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green take detailed notes.
“I’m a big note taker,” Daniels explained. “And whenever coach says something I see (Green, More and Dotson) writing something down. It seems like they write as many notes as me, which is impressive. It’s good that they’re taking that information down to study. It’s showed in camp because they’ve had great practices so far.”
But Daniels knows a big part of how the line must come together must come from Mason Cole, who’s been the starting center since OTAs.
“Mason’s doing a really good job communicating,” Daniels said. “When we do installs, there’s only so much we do every day. We add new stuff and the defense gives us new looks. Whatever Mason says, we do. All the centers are communicating a lot where they’ll be and why they’ll be there.”
Cole joined Daniels as former linemen of the NFC North who joined the Steelers in free agency. When you add Chukwuma Okorafor, they represent the only potential starters on the offensive line who’ve played past their rookie deals. There’s responsibilities with that factor.
“The important part of playing center is you’re the conductor of the offensive line,” Cole said. “You’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page. I pride myself of making sure everyone’s on the same page. But I guess I am old now, so I can help the young guys learn about the game, life, and this league.”
Cole isn’t old; he’s 26. He’s at a prime age for most NFL players. But he is the oldest of the projected starters. That fact has put him in a position to play the role of mentor a little earlier than he expected. But that’s a challenge he doesn’t shy away from.
“It is weird,” Cole said of his being the oldest lineman. “It happens so fast. You blink an eye during your rookie year and all of a sudden it’s year five. I remember looking up to guys in their fifth year and now I’m one of those guys. Helping young guys now is important.”
The offensive line hasn’t looked great during practices. But a big part of that comes with the complication of no pads being worn. It makes defensive players more difficult to stop, and complicates how aggressive a player wants to engage as a blocker.
Those reservations go out the window Monday when the Steelers put on their full pads for a live practice. It will be the first real chance for the offensive line to show if they’ve made real progress.
“It’s exciting,” Daniels said. “Especially for linemen, so much of what we do is predicated on having shoulder pads. We can stick our shoulders in more, come off the ball more, we’re excited to show what we can do as a group Monday.”
“It’s been good,” Cole said of the line’s cohesion. “We’re still learning each other and the offense. But we’re ready for next week. You really learn about each other when the pads go on.”
A big part of where Cole sees the group’s tendencies once it’s a live practice with hitting. The offensive line can practice all they want without pads to get their foot placement, hand placement and body positioning right on a play. But it’s not until they get to show it against live football opponents that they can assess any real progress.
“The biggest thing is the patterns,” Cole said. “Whether it’s run blocking or pass blocking, you have to train the pattern into your body. It’s really hard to do without pads. But it’s still important to do in addition to taking care of your body.”
That being said, there is a patience to be had to see the offensive line rooted in two aspects. The first is an acknowledgement that the Steelers have the most expensive defensive roster in the NFL and look to be on of the best defensive units in the league. The second is that without pads, the defensive front gets another advantage.
Even the running backs feel a sense of excitement to see what the offensive line will show Monday.
“Right now, we don’t have pads on,” Benny Snell said. “It’s still tough, but I have a lot of confidence in those guys. I know that they’ll be able to get it done. I’m looking forward to Monday.”