View Full Version : Offensive line paves way for Steelers

01-11-2009, 09:28 AM
Offensive line paves way for Steelers
By Scott Brown
Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Steelers' offensive line has been called many things this season, most of them unflattering, but to that list this can be added: proactive.

Tired of the criticism heaped upon them on a regular basis, the offensive linemen made a subtle but significant change around the middle of the season.

They started taking an hour to an hour-and-a-half each week to watch film together so they could better understand what the players around them were seeing and thinking and better function as one.

"When you're sitting in a room, and it's just your group, you have a tendency to ask more questions of each other," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "You work together, and you talk it out."

The improvement in the unit since the group film sessions commenced, added Arians, has been "tremendous."

Whether the offensive line has improved enough for the Steelers to make a run at an NFL-record sixth Super Bowl title will become evident starting today, when they host the San Diego Chargers in an AFC divisional playoff game.

The Steelers are just three wins away from adding another Lombardi Trophy to their collection, but history says that teams generally don't win world championships in spite of their offensive line.

And a group that was a question mark before it lost two key starters enters postseason play as an enigma at best and a weakness at worst.

If the sight of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger getting buried under an avalanche of pass rushers or of running back Willie Parker also getting thrown for losses or tackled for minimal gains hasn't helped the perception of the offensive line neither has the Steelers' tradition of controlling the line of scrimmage.

"I think it's a sub-Pittsburgh performance compared to what we're used to," said ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, who made two Pro Bowls and won three Super Bowls as a guard for the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos from 1989-2000. "They're better than a lot out there, but I think the standard has been so high in past years that when you see them not play with the consistency, I think it's one of the things that sparks that criticism."

So, too, do numbers like 46 and 3.7.

The former represents the number of times Roethlisberger has been sacked only New England's Matt Cassel was sacked more times during the regular season while the latter is the Steelers' average per rushing attempt, which ranked 29th out of 32 teams in the NFL.

Yet, there are other numbers and factors that suggest the line has gotten too much criticism for the Steelers' offensive struggles.

Roethlisberger has been sacked 139 times during the regular season since 2006, suggesting he, too, is complicit in the number of times he is dropped because of his propensity for holding onto the ball.

In addition, Parker has been hampered by injuries this season the two-time Pro Bowler missed five games during the regular season with knee and shoulder problems.

And since taking over as offensive coordinator in 2007, Arians has moved the Steelers away from a traditional running attack by relying more on an extra tight end rather than a fullback in the ground game.

"We would like to just send the tanks on them, but that's never our call," starting right tackle Willie Colon said of employing a power running attack. "We're just here to serve and protect."

But even when the Steelers have committed to running the ball, starting left tackle Max Starks said, there have been logistical problems stemming from the team's reputation for pounding opponents on the ground.

"Every team knows we're going to run it and always throws eight in the box," Starks said. "That's why we change up the blocking schemes to kind of get out of that. But guys are still dropping eight and still playing their regular personnel, even when we have three wide receivers in the game.

"We only have five or six bodies at a time, and when you have seven or eight guys down there, it's tough to be successful in those types of situations. We know what we're doing. It's not like we're not blocking the guys we're supposed to be."

Starks is the only starter left from the offensive line that helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl three years ago, and he played right tackle on that team. The turnover on the line has come in various forms, including retirement (center Jeff Hartings), free agency (perennial Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca) and injuries.

The Steelers lost starting right guard Kendall Simmons in the fourth week of the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Left tackle Marvel Smith, meanwhile, did not play after early October because of a back problem and was finally put on injured reserve at the end of December.

The Steelers have roughly $18.5 million in salary cap money tied up in those two players and Starks. As such, they did not get nearly the return they had hoped for from their investment in the offensive line this season.

Starks has filled in capably for Smith while protecting Roethlisberger's blind side, and second-year man Darnell Stapleton has stepped in for Simmons. Still, the group that worked with one another during training camp and the early part of the season is no longer together.

And a revamped line that includes a first-year starter at center in Justin Hartwig has had to come together in the crucible of live competition, which has led to inevitable breakdowns.

If a positive has come out of those mistakes as well as the criticism leveled at the players responsible it is the group film sessions that have bolstered the linemen's cohesion and confidence.

"I think we're starting to understand each other a lot more," Colon said. "I think we're starting to talk without talking, if you will. I think we're right where we need to be right now."

Skeptics will roll their eyes at such a statement. But the line does have at least one ardent supporter.

"They have done a great job," Roethlisberger said of the Steelers' offensive line. "I wish people would understand what kind of defenses they played against and how good they are. They have gotten so much better."

Getting in line

The Steelers took some criticism for waiting until the fourth round of last April's draft to address their offensive line. Teams have had success building an offensive line without a bunch of top draft picks. Here is a look at three teams with standout offensive lines, as well as the Steelers, and in which rounds of the draft the starters on those lines were taken.

New York Giants

LT: David Diehl Fifth-round draft choice in 2003

LG: Rich Seubert Undrafted free agent in 2001

C: Shaun O'Hara Undrafted free agent in 2000

RG: Chris Snee Second-round draft choice in 2005

RT: Kareem McKenzie Third-round draft choice in 2001

Carolina Panthers

*LT: Jordan Gross First-round draft choice in 2003

LG: Travelle Wharton Fourth-round draft choice in 2004

C: Ryan Khalil Second-round draft choice in 2007

RG: Geoff Hangartner Fifth-round draft choice in 2005

RT: Jeff Otah First-round draft choice in 2008 out of Pitt

Tennessee Titans

*LT: David Roos Second-round draft choice in 2005

LG: Eugene Amano Seventh-round draft choice in 2004

C: Kevin Mawae Second-round draft choice in 1994

RG: Jake Scott Fifth-round draft choice in 2004

RT: David Stewart Fourth-round draft choice in 2005


LT: Max Starks Third-round draft choice in 2004

LG: Chris Kemoeatu Sixth-round draft choice in 2005

C: Justin Hartwig Sixth-round draft choice in 2002

RG: Darnell Stapleton Undrafted free agent in 2007

RT: Willie Colon Fourth-round draft choice in 2006

*-The Steelers lost starting left tackle Marvel Smith, a second-round pick in 2000, and starting right guard Kendall Simmons, a first-round pick in 2002, to injuries during the regular season.

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

01-11-2009, 09:41 AM
starting right tackle Willie Colon said of employing a power running attack. "We're just here to serve and protect."

And take stupid penalties at the most inopportune time, Willie. :nono:

The OL has to bring their A++ game today or it is going to be a LONG day for Ben and the O. If they can play as well as a unit as they did in their final game of the regular season against the Browns, it will be smooooooth sailing.