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The offense and the Steelers’ draft (part 1)

April 12, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 12, 2009
By Donald Starver

Special thanks to reader Keith, who suggested that I follow up the series “The 3-4 and the Steelers draft” with a similar series on the Steelers’ offense.  I don’t know if I will have enough time to finish this series before the draft, but I am going to give it a try.

I almost called this series “Arians’ offense and the Steelers’ draft”.  But after thinking about it, I realized that I couldn’t write a series with that title.  Using that title would imply that I actually understand Bruce Arians’ offense.  But the truth is that I don’t.

I’ve watched Bruce Arians’ work as Steelers 0ffensive coordinator for 2 years now, and I still am not quite sure what he is trying to do.  His offense is definitely not a traditional Steelers power running game.    The Steelers have struggled to get the tough yards, particularly on the ground.  The Steelers ranked in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards, so I’m not sure if they have much of a rushing attack, “power” or otherwise.

The Steelers’ don’t run a power passing attack.  Ben Roethlisberger ranked 14th in the league in passing yards, and had almost 2,000 fewer passing yards than league leader Drew Brees. 

They don’t run a classic West Coast offense.  In fact, I struggle to place Bruce Arians’ offense into any particular category.  The most accurate description that I can give it is probably the “gain as few yards as possible and then depend of the defense” offense.

To be fair, Bruce Arians’ offense did win the Super Bowl, so I guess I have no right to question him.  But still……

With that in mind, I plan to look at the offensive positions generically, rather than specifically in the context of the Steelers’ offense (since I don’t understand it).  I hope the readers won’t mind that approach.

I’ll start with the area of greatest need on the Steelers offense, the offensive line.  Specifically, I will start with the most important position on the offensive line; the offensive tackle.

To illustrate just how important offensive tackles are, we need look no further than the 2008 draft.  The first overall pick in 2008 was an offensive tackle, Jake Long.  In addition to Long, 7 other offensive tackles were taken in the first round; more than any other position.  Contrarily, no centers or guards were taken in the first round, nor were there any wide receivers selected.

Offensive tackles are usually the biggest linemen on the team.  They are also typically the most athletic.  Left tackles are valued more highly than right tackles, since most quarterbacks are right-handed, and many of the top pass rushers in the league (e.g. DeMarcus Ware, Joey Porter, James Harrison, etc.) play on the right side of the defense.  The left tackle must protect the quarterback’s blind side. 

Because of the greater importance of the position, left tackles are typically drafted earlier than right tackles, and they are paid significantly more.

Left tackles must have the speed and agility to handle speed rushers coming off the edge.  They must also have the strength and base to anchor against bull rushers. 

Contrarily, the right tackle doesn’t need to be quite as fast as the left tackle.  Instead, right tackles must have tremendous leg strength to get an effective push in the running game.  They need to be an “earth mover” who can successfully push back their defensive opponent.  Most running backs are right handed and prefer to run to the right side, so having a mauler in front of them is important to the success of the running game.

Long arms are considered a highly desirable trait for an offensive tackle.  This allows them to extend into defenders.  Extension is important for two reasons.  First, it allows them to get their hands on the defender from farther away, thus controlling the defender and preventing them from gaining momentum.  Secondly, long arms allow the offensive tackle to protect a wider area.  So an offensive tackle with short arms is going to be down-graded by scouts, regardless of how massive he may be.

Looking at this year’s draft class, there are a number of good offensive tackles available.  Most projection have at least 4 offensive tackles being taken in the first round.

Offensive Tackles:

Eugene Monroe (6’5″, 311 lbs.), Virginia.  Monroe is equally adept at run blocking and pass protection.  He uses excellent technique, and is extremely consistent.

Andre Smith (6’5″, 340 lbs.), Alabama.  A hugely talented player with great size.  In college, he was always a man among boys, so he didn’t develop great technique.  He will have to do so at the next level.  Smith’s decision making and mental attitude have raised some questions.

Jason Smith (6’4″, 305 lbs.), Baylor.  A converted tight end who probably won’t be ready to start on day one.  However, he has great athleticism, and should prove to be a good investment for a team that is willing to put in the development time.

Michael Oher (6’5″, 309 lbs.), Mississippi.  Probably the biggest risk among the top-rated offensive tackle.  He had 3 different position coaches in 4 years, and will need coaching at the next level.  He won the Outland Trophy in 2008.

Eben Britton (6’6″, 310 lbs.), Arizona.  Not a great athlete, and he can be beaten by edge rushers.  However, he is a scrappy player who has good size and solid technique.  He will get the job done, although he may not look good doing so. 

William Beatty (6’6″, 291 lbs.), Connecticut.  Outstanding athlete who has questionable toughness.  Doesn’t play with passion.  Didn’t play against the best talent.  May be taken in the first round, but it will be more due to potential than to actual performance. 

The Steelers’ can use an upgrade on both sides of the offensive line.  Willie Colon, in particular may be vulnerable to rookie competition.  He has the longest tenure at his position on the Steelers starting offensive line, yet he continues to fail to impress.  Max Starks played surprisingly well last year, but the Steelers still don’t seem to be convinced that he is their long-term solution at left tackle.

Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, and Jason Smith will be long gone before the Steelers make their first pick.  However, it is likely that Eben Britton and/or William Beatty will be available when the Steelers select at #32.

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2009 bloggers’ mock draft: pick #16

March 15, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

Steelers Today has hooked up with 31 other NFL bloggers from around the country to do a bloggers’ mock draft. All 32 NFL teams are represented in the mock draft.

The mock draft is sponsored by Cleveland Browns blog No Logo Needed. For more details on the bloggers’ mock draft, click here.

With the sixteenth pick of the 2009 NFL Draft the San Diego Chargers blog BoltHype selects…

Eben Britton, offensive tackle, Arizona
As draft day draws nearer and nearer, speculation as to what position the San Diego Chargers will address in the first round continues to grow.  Some feel the Chargers would be best suited to draft a running back with their top pick.  Others feel an upgrade at safety is needed, or help along the defensive line.  But those who’ve followed the team closely know how much the Chargers want a top offensive tackle.

Last year, the Chargers were poised to select an offensive tackle with the 27th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.  Unfortunately for the Bolts, a record eight offensive tackles were selected in the first 26 picks.  By the time the Chargers came on to the clock, all the tackles were gone. This year, the Chargers are in a much better position to acquire an elite tackle.

Chargers GM AJ Smith has made it no secret that he is not happy about the way his team has struggled to run the football, and plans to address the issue:

“I just know we’re not good enough.  But I will say this, which I’ve said before: we need to have a solid, consistent running game.  We have to.”

While four offensive tackles have gone off the board at this point, there are still some options for the Chargers.  The Chargers could take a defensive lineman like Tyson Jackson.  Or they could draft Merriman’s potential replacement, Larry English.  And of course many people think the Chargers take a running back like Chris Wells or Knoshown Moreno here.  But for the Chargers, who need help at right tackle, Britton could be an easy selection.

The Chargers love experienced players, and while Britton is only a junior, he has started 37 consecutive games in the PAC-10.  Britton, a Southern California native, has ideal size, a massive wingspan, a nasty temperment, and leadership abilities.  Britton would bring excellent drive blocking skills to the right tackle position and allow the team some flexibility when calling run plays.  Britton is also a pretty solid athlete and has the speed to pull.

Overall, I think the Chargers head into the first round looking for an offensive tackle if the right one is there.  I think they’d also consider help along the front seven defensively.  But in this scenario, I think Britton is a solid selection he could very well end up being a San Diego Charger when it is all said and done.

The draft results so far are shown below. Click on the individual pick to read the blogger’s rationale for his selection.

1. Detroit Lions: Mathew Stafford, QB (Georgia)
2. St. Louis Rams: Eugene Monroe, OT (Virginia)
3. Kansas City Chiefs: Aaron Curry, LB (Wake Forest)
4. Seattle Seahawks: Michael Crabtree, WR (Texas Tech)
5. Cleveland Browns: Rey Maualuga, LB (Southern California)
6. Cincinnati Bengals: Jason Smith, OT (Baylor)
7. Oakland Raiders: Jeremy Maclin, WR (Missouri)
8. Jacksonville Jaguars: B.J. Raji, DT (Boston College)
9. Green Bay Packers, Brian Orakpo, DE (Texas)
10. San Francisco 49ers, Everette Brown, OLB (Florida State)
11. Buffalo Bills, Clay Matthews, OLB (Southern California)
12. Denver Broncos, Malcolm Jenkins, CB (Ohio State)
13. Washington Redskins, Andre Smith, OT (Alabama)
14. New Orleans Saints, Brian Cushing, OLB (Southern California)
15. Houston Texans, Michael Oher, OT (Ole Miss)
16. San Diego Chargers, Eben Britton, OT (Arizona)

The New York Jets are on the clock.

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If I were Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert (Part 4)

March 09, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 9, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note: This is the fourth installment in a series.  If you haven’t already read the first part, please click here.  If you haven’t read the second part, please click here.  If you haven’t read the third part, please click here.

We’ve already talked about the Steelers’ free agency situation, and what Director of Football Operations, Kevin Colbert, should do.  Most of our predictions materialized exactly as we said they would.  Now it’s time to look at the upcoming NFL draft.  What positions should Colbert be focusing on as the draft approaches?

When I read most mock drafts, as well as most fan forums, the conversation seems to be pretty consistent.  There seems to be a consensus that the Steelers’ top need is on the offensive line.  After the 2008 draft, many Steelers fans were disappointed that the Steelers didn’t draft offensive linemen in all 7 rounds of the draft (okay, maybe we’re exaggerating, but they definitely wanted o-line in the 1st round).

I understand the rationale behind this line of thinking.  Afterall, Ben Roethlisberger took 47 regular season sacks in 2007.  Most fans thought that Ben wouldn’t live through another season like that.  But Big Ben proved them all wrong, as he survived 49 regular season sacks in 2008.  If we add in post-season sacks, Big Ben has taken over 110 sacks over the past 2 years.  That’s a lot of sacks for any quarterback to take.  But it’s an unacceptable number of sacks for a $100 million quarterback to take.

To put it into perspective, Indianapolis Colts’ QB Peyton Manning took 23 regular season sacks in 2007, and 14 in 2008.  New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees took 16 sacks in 2007, and 13 in 2008.  Moreover, both quarterbacks took over 100 more pass attempts each year than Roethlisberger.  That means they had more than 100 more opportunities to be sacked, and yet, each was sacked less than half as often as Roethlisberger.

Those are mighty compelling reasons why offensive linemen should be the Steelers’ top priority in the coming draft.  Most mock drafts have the Steelers taking names like Alex Mack (C - California), Max Unger (C - Oregon), Eben Britton (T - Arizona), or Duke Robinson (G - Oklahoma) in the first round.  Drafting offensive line in the first round is the obvious answer, and I understand why so many come to that conclusion.

However, if I were Kevin Colbert, I would not rank offensive line as my top need.  Sure, the sack figures that I listed above are worrisome.  Big Ben needs to survive the 2009 season.  I get that.  But in my opinion, the Steelers’ top need going into the 2009 NFL draft is defensive line.  In fact, it’s not even close.

If we look at the players who were on the active roster at the end of the 2008 season (Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons were both on injured reserve), the Steelers offensive line had an average age of 25.  That group will average 26 years old next season.  The only offensive lineman on the roster who is over 30 years of age is center Justin Hartwig.  He will be 31 years old during the 2009 season.  Every other Steelers offensive lineman will be in their 20′s.  That’s a pretty young group of players. 

In addition to their youth, only one of the offensive linemen who started for the Steelers in the Super Bowl had more than one year of starting experience at his position with the Steelers.  Right tackle Willie Colon was in his second year as a starter.  All of the other offensive linemen were in their first year as Steelers’ starters at their position.

Contrast that with the Steelers’ defensive line.  While the offensive line will average 26 years old next year, the defensive line that played in the Super Bowl will have an average age of 32 next year.   None of the starters in the front 3 is under 30.  Aaron Smith will be 33 this season, Casey Hampton will be 32, and  Brett Keisel will be 31.  The key backups were even older.  Travis Kirschke will be 35, Orpeus Roye will be 36, and Chris Hoke will be 33.

The Steelers only have two defensive linemen on the roster who are under 30, Nick Eason and Scott Paxson.  Neither is an important contributor.

Aaron Smith is the senior statesman of the starters.  He is 33.  Smith has been so good for so long, that it is easy to assume that he will always man his post on the Steelers’ defensive line.  But he won’t.  Smith probably only has 1 or 2 seasons left in him.  Moreover, it probably says something bad about the Steelers’ front office if they rely on a 34 or 35 year old lineman for the majority of the snaps.

The Steelers’ defense is very complex, and few players start in their rookie season.  So the Steelers need to draft Smith’s replacement BEFORE he is actually needed.  Give him one year to play as Smith’s backup, and then move him into the starting lineup in 2010.

Nose Tackle Casey Hampton is also coming to the end of his career.  Because of their incredible girth, NFL nose tackles tend to wear down faster than any position other than running backs.  Hampton’s performance has slipped noticeably of late.  Moreover, he has increasing difficulty maintaining his fitness in the off-season as he gets older.

The Steelers are lucky to have an incredible backup for Casey Hampton in Chris Hoke.  When Hoke enters the game, the Steelers don’t miss a beat.  I’ve always felt the Chris Hoke was one of the most under-appreciated players on the Steelers’ roster.  Unfortunately, Chris Hoke is even older than Casey Hampton.  So he is not the long-term solution that the Steelers need.

Brett Keisel is the youngest of the starters, but he is going to be 31 next season.  That’s much closer to the end of his career than the beginning.  Keisel has a few more good years left in his legs, but he is the least dominant of the Steelers’ three starting defensive lineman.  If the Steelers can upgrade Brett Keisel, they should definitely do it.  However, relative to finding replacements for Smith and Hampton, Keisel is the least of the Steelers’ worries.

As I mentioned earlier, Nick Eason and Scott Paxson are the only two Steelers defensive linemen who are under 30 years old.  I don’t think many Steelers fans see either of these two players as the heir apparent to Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton.  That means the Steelers have no successors on their roster.  That’s a problem.  A big problem.

Can the Steelers continue to win with their current offensive line?  There’s a Lombardi Trophy at Heinz Field that proves that the answer to that question is “yes”.  Is the offensive line the best in the league?  No, of course they aren’t.  But because of their youth and limited experience playing together, the offensive line is going to get better.  Time will have the opposite effect on the defensive line.  Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton are going to get worse, not better.  Brett Keisel’s speed will begin to decline as well.  The Steelers need to start grooming their successors now, while they aren’t truly needed. 

So contrary to popular opinion, I contend that defensive line, and NOT offensive line, is the Steelers’ top need.  Hopefully, Kevin Colbert sees it that way too.

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