The Pittsburgh Steelers are under no illusions about the driving force behind their offense.
Sure, Le’Veon Bell is a wrecking ball of a running back, setting Steelers postseason rushing records two weeks in a row. With 170 yards Sunday night, Bell finished just 57 behind Kansas City’s entire team – and that’s with the Chiefs counting both rushing and passing.
As wide a path of destruction as Bell leaves, however, he and the rest of the Steelers are quick to give credit where credit is due: To those five big guys up front.
“It’s the line,” Ben Roethlisberger said after the Steelers advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the first time in six years. “Le’Veon is awesome, there’s no doubt about it. But we are only as good as the group up front.”
Offensive linemen might be the most anonymous players in the NFL, and the Steelers are no different. Any idea who Pittsburgh’s starters are? Even one of them? No? OK, they’re left tackle Alejandro Villanueva; left guard Ramon Foster; center Maurkice Pouncey; right guard David DeCastro; and right tackle Marcus Gilbert.
You won’t see many kids wearing their jerseys – except maybe Pouncey’s, because who doesn’t want to wear a jersey with Pouncey on the back? – and they don’t get cool nicknames like the Steel Curtain or the Killer Bs. Most of the time, they go entirely unnoticed.
Unless Roethlisberger is on his backside, that is. Then everyone wants a piece of them.
But as big a year as Bell is having, it doesn’t happen without a stout line in front of him clearing the way.
Bell only played 12 games during the regular season; he was suspended for the first three and coach Mike Tomlin sat him, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown for the finale. Yet his 1,268 yards rushing was less than 100 shy of his career high in 2014. He’s powered the Steelers’ eight-game winning streak that has them within a game of the Super Bowl, averaging 146.5 yards per game.
And in the playoffs, he’s been unstoppable. In his playoff debut against the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round, he broke Franco Harris’ franchise record with 167 yards.
A week later, he topped it.
“That we’re able to run the ball like that, it shows how efficient we’ve been throughout the whole game. Shows how good the offensive line has been playing all game,” Bell said Sunday night.
It’s not just the final number on the stat sheet, either. For most of the Kansas City game, the line opened wide holes for Bell – and often more than one. While Bell is a bruising, punishing back who can create his own gaps, those bumps and hits at the line of scrimmage eventually add up. By limiting the pounding he takes after the handoff, it extends both his effectiveness and longevity.
“There was a couple of times where I wasn’t even touched until I was six yards down the field,” Bell said.
The line has been equally ferocious in its protection of Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh’s 21 sacks allowed during the regular season were the second-fewest in the league behind Oakland. The woeful Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, permitted 66 – or about the same number of quarterbacks they were forced to use.
In the postseason, Roethlisberger has been sacked twice.
“They do a lot of dirty, grimy work,” Roethlisberger said. “(One sack allowed) against that pass rush, that defense, in a hostile, loud environment, you have to tip your hat to the guys up front.”
Roethlisberger has done more than that. For Christmas last month, he gave his offensive linemen custom-made suits. Last year, he gave them titanium watches.
Fitting. After all, it’s the offensive line that makes Roethlisberger and Bell look so good.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.