March 11, 2009
By Donald Starver
Note: This is the sixth installment in a series. If you haven’t already read the earlier installments, please click the links below
In the last two installments in this series, I suggested that the Steelers’ first priority in the upcoming draft should be defensive line, and their second priority should be defensive backs. Now I plan to discuss what I believe should be the Steelers’ third priority.
I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise to many of you when I say that the Steelers’ next priority should be……..(drum roll )…..the offensive line.
I know that many of you think that O-line should be priority #1, 2, and 3, but I’ve already established why I don’t agree with that. The one thing that I do need to clarify is that even though I prioritize offensive line as #3, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I believe the Steelers shouldn’t take an offensive lineman until their 3rd pick. Team needs have to be balanced with the value of the players available. For example, if Illinois CB Vontae Davis were still available at the 32nd pick (he won’t be), I’d definitely take him in the first round, despite saying that defensive line should be the Steelers’ first priority. (Translation: I’m a “best player available” guy).
I don’t think it’s really necessary to remind anyone why the offensive line is a key priority for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked over 110 times during the past two years (including playoff games). That’s just too many.
It is a common refrain in Pittsburgh to blame Ben for his own misery. “Big Ben holds the ball too long”, we often hear. I agree with that sentiment. Big Ben DOES hold the ball too long. But holding the ball too long didn’t cause 110 sacks.
Think back to the Philadelphia Eagles game this past season. During that game, Roethlisberger was sacked 8 times, before finally leaving the game for good with an injury. Those 8 sacks were NOT due to Big Ben holding the ball too long. The offensive line played like a team of matadors. Ben averaged about .04 nanoseconds between the time the ball was snapped, and the time he ended up on his back.
I don’t think I need to convince anyone that the offensive line was the Steelers’ achilles heel this season. Instead, let’s look at each player and determine what issues need to be addressed.
LT Max Starks – Max Starks was the unheralded hero of the Steelers’ Super Bowl run. When Marvel Smith went down, Starks stepped in and replaced him admirably.
Some Steelers fans can’t seem to forgive Starks for losing his RT position to Willie Colon in 2007, and then not being able to take it back from him in training camp in 2008. Since Colon hadn’t played particularly well, that must mean that Starks was really bad.
Only the Steelers’ coaches know for sure why Starks didn’t win the RT position, but the reality is that Starks played adequately at left tackle when he got his chance. He did struggle against speed rushers like DeMarcus Ware, but who doesn’t?
Starks is big and strong, and is rarely bull-rushed. He needs to improve his lateral movement, but at only 27 years old, and with only 1 year under his belt as a starting left tackle, Starks still has upside.
LG Chris Kemoeatu – Kemo was a disappointment in his first year as a starter. Kemo is bigger and stronger than Alan Faneca. At 6’3″ and 344 lbs., Kemoeatu should be more effective in run blocking than Faneca was, even if he doesn’t have the speed to pull like Faneca. However, that often didn’t prove to be the case.
But Kemo’s shortcomings are usually not physical. It isn’t his speed or his strength that holds him back. Kemo’s greatest shortcomings are mental. Kemoeatu had been on the Steelers’ roster for several years before being called upon to start, so he should have had a complete grasp of the Steelers’ blocking schemes. Yet, Kemo often played like he didn’t know what was going on.
Kemoeatu is prone to far too many penalties. He holds too often, and he seems to be called for being off-sides more often than any other player in the league. If players were ranked by penalties, Kemoeatu would be All-Pro.
Fortunately, 2008 was Kemoeatu’s first year as a starter. Now that he has a full year under his belt, things should come a little easier for him. Being only 26 years old, his best years are still ahead of him.
C Justin Hartwig – After suffering through the Sean Mahan fiasco, Steelers fans greeted Hartwig like the French greeted Patton’s army. He was a conquering hero before he ever stepped onto the field.
Some fans are quick to say that Hartwig gave up more sacks than any other center in the NFL. That may be the case, but can any center really succeed or fail on his own? Remember, Hartwig was surrounded by “off-sides Chris” Kemoeatu, and an undrafted free agent (Darnell Stapleton) who wasn’t expected to play last season.
Hartwig will be 31 during the 2009 season. He is the oldest of the Steelers’ starting offensive linemen, but he is far from over-the-hill. In fact, he may have been their most consistent lineman last year.
Like most of the Steelers’ offensive linemen in 20o8, Hartwig was new to the unit. Hartwig’s performance should improve as the Steelers’ line as a whole improves.
RG Darnell Stapleton – Stapleton was the biggest surprise of the bunch. He was not expected to play, and he stepped in admirably when Kendall Simmons went down.
Stapleton is to be commended for stepping in and doing a good job as a surprise replacement. I have nothing bad to say about his performance. He exceeded my expectations.
I am, however, disappointed with Trai Essex. I expected much more from him than I did Stapleton. Yet despite all of the injuries to the Steelers’ offensive line, Essex wasn’t able to win a starting job, while Stapleton started in the Super Bowl.
RT Willie Colon – The only player in the NFL who could possibly dethrone Chris Kemoeatu as “king of the penalty” is Willie Colon.
Colon was the senior member of the Steelers offensive line last year. He was the only returning starter from the 2007 offensive line. His experience should have given him the strongest grasp of the Steelers’ offense. Yet, Colon often looked like he had no idea what he was doing out there. That is inexcusable.
Scouting reports have often noted that Colon is better suited to play guard than tackle. Obviously, the Steelers’ coaches don’t agree, since Colon remains a tackle.
My hope is that Colon will continue to improve along with the rest of the Steelers’ offensive line. However, the fact that he is still penalty-prone after 2 years as a starter is troubling.
If I were Kevin Colbert, I’d go into the draft looking for opportunities to upgrade the offensive line at every position. The offensive line is unlike any other unit on the Steelers. There is no offensive lineman who has made himself indispensable.
On defense, players like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu can feel very confident that their positions are secure. On offense, Big Ben’s position is secure. So are Hines Ward’s and Santonio Holmes’. Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Mewelde Moore are secure. Even special teamers Jeff Reed and Daniel Sepulveda are secure. But is there a single offensive lineman that imparts that type of confidence?
Answer this question: Are any of the Steelers’ offensive linemen among the best 10 in the league at their position? My answer would be “no”. In fact, I only think that we have one who is in the top half of the league at his position (I’ll leave it up to your imagination which one I’m talking about). That’s a problem. A big problem.
Kevin Colbert’s challenge with the offensive line is different than it is for other units on the Steelers. With the defensive line, he has players who are still very good, but who are getting old. He has to find replacements while the incumbents still have a year or two left in their tanks.
With the defensive backs, he has to add depth because the Steelers lost a starter, and they don’t have enough DB’s on the roster.
With the offensive line, the challenge is just as great, but less immediate. The players are young, there is plenty of depth, and all of the starters are under contract. Moreover, the players should get better as they get more experience. However, as a whole, the players just aren’t as good as they are on other parts of the team. The O-line can use an upgrade at every position.
Despite their shortcomings, the O-line was good enough to win the Super Bowl. That can’t be emphasized enough. There aren’t many teams that look to make wholesale changes to a group that just won the Super Bowl.
I think most fans will agree on the Steelers needs. What we don’t all agree on is which need is most pressing. One reader commented that he thinks it’s more important for the Steelers to replace players who are young and bad, rather than replacing players who are old and good. Thus, he’d upgrade Willie Colon before finding Aaron Smith’s replacement. I definitely see the logic in that line of thinking, even though I don’t agree with it.
If I were Kevin Colbert, I’d take all of these factors into consideration, and then select the best player available at our draft slot, regardless of position (with the exception of QB, TE, and K/P, which I wouldn’t draft no matter who was available).
(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)