The Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting offensive line was arguably the biggest question mark in their 2022 roster heading into training camp. Outside of quarterback competition, all other position groups have one or more key players who are proven contributors to 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 have yet to prove they can be a productive line for Najee Harris to block and protect whoever is the starting quarterback.
But if you ask James Daniels, the one several linemen have called the leader of their group, he has seen progress.
“I can tell everyone did a lot of work during the break,” Daniels said. “It seems with the technique and what people look like now compared to minicamp, the guys have done a really good job working on their technique.”
Several offensive linemen noted their appreciation for new offensive line coach Pat Meyer’s approach to coaching them during minicamp. Now, when the group listens to Meyer in meetings, Daniels has seen young linemen Kevin Dotson, Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green taking detailed notes.
“I’m a big note taker,” Daniels explained. “And every time the coach says something, I see (Green, More and Dotson) writing something. It looks like they write as many notes as I do, which is impressive. It’s good that they take this information to study it. It shows at camp because they have had great training so far.
But Daniels knows that a big part of how the line needs to come together has to come from Mason Cole, who has been the starting center since OTAs.
“Mason does a really good job of communicating,” Daniels said. “When we’re doing installations, we don’t do much every day. We add new things and the defense gives us new looks. Whatever Mason says, we do. All the centers communicate a lot about where they will be and why they will be there.
Cole joined Daniels as former NFC North linemen who joined the Steelers in free agency. When you add Chukwuma Okorafor, they represent the only potential starters on the offensive line who have exceeded their rookie agreements. There are responsibilities with this factor.
“The important part of playing center is that you’re the offensive line conductor,” Cole said. “You have to make sure everyone is on the same page. I pride myself on making sure everyone is on the same page. But I guess I’m old now, so I can help young people learn about the game, life and this league.
Cole is not old; he is 26 years old. He’s in the prime of life for most NFL players. But he is the oldest of the projected starters. This fact put him in a position to take on the role of mentor a little earlier than expected. But it is a challenge that he does not hesitate to take up.
“It’s weird,” Cole said of being the oldest lineman. “It happens so fast. You blink your rookie year and all of a sudden it’s fifth year. I remember looking up to guys in their fifth year and now I’m one of those guys. Helping young people now is important.
The offensive line hasn’t been good during practice. But a lot of that comes with the complication of no worn pads. This makes defensive players harder to stop and complicates the aggressiveness a player wants to engage as a blocker.
Those reservations disappear on Monday when the Steelers put on their full pads for a live practice. This will be the first real chance for the offensive line to show if it has made any real progress.
“It’s exciting,” Daniels said. “Especially for linemen, a lot of what we do is based on having shoulder pads. We can stick our shoulders more, get off the ball more, we’re excited to show what we can do as a group on Monday.
“It’s been good,” Cole said of the line’s cohesion. “We are still learning from each other and attacking. But we are ready for next week. You really get to know each other as the pads continue.
Much of where Cole sees the group’s tendencies once it comes to live practice with hitting. The offensive line can practice all they want without pads to get the placement of their feet, hands, and body on a play. But that’s only when they show it against live football opponents. that they can assess real progress.
“The most important thing is the motives,” Cole said. “Whether it’s a run block or a pass block, you have to train the pattern in your body. It’s really hard to do without pads. But it’s still important to do it in addition to taking care of your body.
That being said, it takes patience to see the offensive line grounded in two aspects. The first is an acknowledgment that the Steelers have the most expensive defensive roster in the NFL and appear to be one of the best defensive units in the league. The second is that without pads, the defensive front gets another advantage.
Even running backs feel a sense of excitement to see what the offensive line will show on Monday.
“At the moment we don’t have any pads,” Benny Snell said. “It’s always difficult, but I have a lot of confidence in these guys. I know they will be able to do it. I look forward to Monday.