New Steelers OC Arthur Smith has a vision — and now, the linemen to execute it

PITTSBURGH — Nearly three months after the Pittsburgh Steelers hired Arthur Smith and tasked him with reigniting a stagnant offense, the new coordinator met the Pittsburgh media for the first time.

As he took his seat in front of a microphone on Friday night at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, he did so with two shiny new pieces on his offensive line.

After selecting tackle Troy Fautanu with the 20th pick in the first round on Thursday night, the Steelers waited patiently Friday as the second round unfolded. The board fell about well as the team could have hoped when West Virginia center Zach Frazier, a player who has long felt like a fit in Pittsburgh, fell right into the Steelers’ lap with the 51st pick.

“I just know how much the offensive line means to the Pittsburgh Steelers, their long tradition there of having great offensive lines,” Frazier said on a conference call shortly after he was picked. “It’s special.”

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He’s not the only one taking note of what the Steelers have done — and more importantly what they’re doing.

Over the last several seasons, so many hires, signings and draft picks have signaled that Pittsburgh wants to return to its roots as a franchise that wins the line of scrimmage and leans on a reliable rushing attack.

First came the addition of assistant GM Andy Weidl, a former collegiate lineman himself who helped build the Philadelphia Eagles into Super Bowl contenders from the inside out. Then, Pittsburgh signed former Eagle Isaac Seumalo, who instantly became the team’s top lineman. That was followed shortly by GM Omar Khan trading up to make offensive tackle Broderick Jones his first-ever draft pick. Now this year, Fautanu and Frazier have joined the mix.

All of these moves gave us clues about the way this team wants to win. When Smith finally had his chance to lay out his vision, the man at the controls left no doubt about what his offense’s identity and personality will be.

“There’s certainly a style of play and an intent that we want that fits this team — the history here, Steelers brand of football and that shared vision,” Smith said. “Every team I’ve been on, you want to win the line of scrimmage. … You certainly want to have a physical team and play with an edge. You need those guys up front.”

About two hours later, Smith once again took his seat in front of the microphone to discuss yet another addition on the offensive side of the ball. With the third consecutive pick aimed at scoring more points, the Steelers fulfilled their need at wide receiver by drafting 5-foot-10 Roman Wilson, who was one of just 10 FBS players in 2023 with at least 12 receiving touchdowns. His calling card is his speedy slot ability, which allowed him to feast in the middle of the field. More than 70 percent of his catches in 2023 came between the numbers.

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Steelers draft Roman Wilson: How he fits, pick grade and scouting intel

Beyond that, he also comes from a run-heavy, pro-style offense that often asked receivers to put their stats to the side and contribute to the greater good. The Athletic’s draft analyst Dane Brugler noted that Wilson “plays with an edge and shows terrific compete skills as a blocker.”

The third-round pick (No. 84) highlighted that willing attitude when asked about how he bought into a pro-style scheme at Michigan when much of the college football world is airing it out.

“You’re going to go out there and do whatever your coach asks you to do to help the team win,” Wilson said. “At Michigan, it was blocking. I feel like I want to win the game. I’m going to go out there and I’m gonna block my ass off.”

Sounds like he’ll fit right into the vision. Wilson comes in with something to prove. He was Brugler’s 41st-ranked player and had a second-round grade but had to wait until the third round to hear his name called.

“Just watching this draft, I just feel like I’m doubted,” Wilson said. “I felt like I was a top-10 receiver. Just watching a lot of receivers go in front of me, I just feel like a lot of people doubted me.”

Now look: When it comes to an offensive identity, there’s a big difference between wanting to run the ball effectively and actually doing it. Pittsburgh should know this better than most.

Although the Steelers finished last season 13th in rushing (118.2), the start was dismal. Through the first seven games, Pittsburgh’s rushing attack ranked 28th in yards per game (79.7) and 29th in yards per carry (3.4). In many ways, it was a mirror image of the previous season. Through a 2-6 start in 2022, the Steelers ranked 25th in yards per game (94.8) and 26th in yards per carry (4.0) before transforming after the bye week.

The outlook this season should provide confidence that the Steelers have a vision and will be better positioned to execute it from the jump.

For one, Smith has a well-established history of coordinating successful ground games. His Titans leaned on Derrick Henry on the way to the league’s third-ranked rushing attack in 2019 and second-ranked in 2020. In Atlanta as the play caller and head coach, his Falcons finished 26th in Year 1 before producing the third- and ninth-best rushing offenses in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

The wide zone run game has been a staple of Smith’s scheme. With Frazier and Fautanu, the tape shows they have the athleticism to block wide zone, to pull or to get out into space on screens. It sounds like that vision could evolve even more with the new pieces.

“When those guys are really comfortable playing in space, there’s certain things that you want to add,” Smith said. “You don’t want to get stale. You’re not just going to reprint the playbook from the year before or four years ago. There’s a certain template to play, but you want to evolve and to play to the strengths.”

As we saw last year with Jones, who didn’t win the starting job until the midpoint in the season, it can take even a highly touted rookie some time to earn the trust of his staff and become comfortable at the next level. However, the new additions both have significantly more experience than Jones did. Jones started just 11 games and played in 17 in college. Fautanu played in 41 games with 31 starts. Frazier started as a freshman and accumulated 46 total in his career. He’s considered one of the most pro-ready linemen in this draft.

“The consistency, the intent that they play with, they both play with an edge,” Smith said. “Very smart players. That consistency, you don’t see a lot of lulls in their game. And that’s a credit to both the way they worked and the way they train.”

And given how the Steelers have consistently built this team from the inside out, they should have the pieces in place to implement their plan.

(Photo of Zach Frazier: Ben Queen / USA Today)

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