PITTSBURGH — The struggles of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line through the first quarter of the 2021 season have been well-documented.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times in four games, after being brought down just 13 times in the entire 2020 season. He’s been hit a total of 27 times and has suffered injuries to his left pectoral muscle and his hip.
On Sunday, that line will face its biggest test yet in terms of protecting Roethlisberger: Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller.
Miller has 4.5 sacks, 1.5 off the NFL lead and just behind Pittsburgh edge rusher T.J. Watt. He also has seven tackles for loss to lead the league and seven quarterback hits as the 32-year-old has shown no sign of slowing down in his relentless pursuit of passers.
“His football intellect is on the ceiling, and you couple that with his freakish talents and that’s why he’s in the midst of the type of career that he’s built,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “And he’s also having that type of 2021 season. I think he’s got four and a half sacks, (seven) tackles for loss, and all that while people are working really hard schematically to minimize them.”
The Steelers, of course, aren’t giving away what they might try to do to minimize Miller, but Tomlin was quick to point that it isn’t as if there’s anything out there that can be done that he hasn’t seen before.
“Yes, we’re going to do some things to hopefully minimize his impact on the game, but yes, he sees those things week in and week out,” Tomlin said. “He’s got flexibility in terms of what side of the line and so forth that he plays on, et cetera, making him a tough nut to crack.”
In fact, it’s still somewhat of a question as to who will be going up against Miller. Rookie Dan Moore Jr. and veteran Joe Haeg started the Steelers’ last game at Green Bay, but Zach Banner (knee) and Chukwuma Okorafor (concussion) are back to practice and could provide the team options if they want to go different directions.
They also have the ability to use personnel other than linemen to help against Miller. Third tight end Zach Gentry has been used on 52 offensive snaps through four weeks, but has been asked to help pass block just eight times. Eric Ebron (five) and Pat Freiermuth (four) have been asked to protect even less often. Fullback Derek Watt hasn’t done it at all.
“He’s a generational player,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “Every defense has things they can take away. … That part’s not different.”
But while Miller is a different challenge compared to what the Steelers have faced so far, he is similar in many ways to what lies ahead: the team has NFL sacks leader Myles Garrett on the schedule twice, Danielle Hunter (five sacks), Robert Quinn and Kahlil Mack (4.5 and four sacks).
Whether the answer is the Steelers getting healthier at the tackle position, getting better play from the ones they’ve been playing, or using other players to help protect Roethlisberger, finding the answer to stopping elite edge rushers will be a key to the team’s performance this season.