It appears the Steelers will be without center Maurkice Pouncey for an extended period of time after ankle surgery.
Pouncey has been selected to four Pro Bowls and been named as a first-team All Pro twice, making him one of the premier centers in the league, so it’s a massive loss for the Steelers and could directly impact running back and potential No. 1 overall pick Le’Veon Bell.
Since Pouncey entered the league in 2010, the Steelers’ lowest yards per carry was in 2013 (3.51), the year he missed 15 games with a torn ACL. It rebounded to 4.14 in 2014 when he returned.
And Bell himself saw his average yards per carry increase from 3.5 in 2013 to 4.7 in 2014, ending the season with 1,361 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.
Pittsburgh loves to run the ball up the middle, accounting for more than a quarter of the plays they run (118). That preference will be problematic without Pouncey and likely have to change.
This could be particularly true when it comes to Pittsburgh’s approach of running heavy up the middle on first down.Pouncey’s rating for run blocking (6.8) ranked ninth in the league. The highest run blocking rating for the rest of the offensive line was right tackle Marcus Gilbert at plus-4.4, followed by left tackle Kelvin Beachum (plus-2.0). Cody Wallace, who will replace Pouncey at center, was rated at minus-2.8 in a backup role at guard.
“I am just hoping I can play at a level high enough that there is no drop off and we can keep this thing rolling and get him back healthy,” Wallace said. “I’ll keep doing what I have been doing. I will just play to the best of my abilities and hope that it’s good enough for us to win.”
The team also added Doug Legursky for depth. He was rated minus-4.0 for run blocking last season during his time in Buffalo. But he too knows the challenge ahead of him.
“No one can fill the shoes of Pouncey,” Legursky said.
Running towards Beachum has promise: the team averaged eight yards per carry on first down behind him in 2014 and 5.2 yards on second down.
The downgrade from Pouncey won’t be enough to push Bell out of the top 10, but it is certainly a red flag to any owner looking to select him No. 1 overall in this year’s draft.
The impact will be felt in the passing game as well. Pouncey’s pass block rating (3.4) was fourth best in the league among centers and fourth best on his team among the offensive lineman — Beachum, Gilbert and David Decastro were all rated better, but only Beachum allowed less pressure in total sacks, hits and hurries among the team’s lineman involved in at least 400 pass-blocking snaps.
Keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright will be critical to Pittsburgh’s chances. Last year Big Ben had a top 5 pass-blocking unit, but the year before without Pouncey it was middle of the road at No. 14. In that year, Roethlisberger had a 74.7 passer rating under pressure, completing just 49.7 percent of his passes.
That could mean lower your expectations for Roethlisberger and his main target, Antonio Brown, who is the consensus No. 1 at the wide receiver position.
Fantasy Football 2015