Training Camp: Steelers will try to draw a fine line
Things get a little blurry when the Steelers try to work the old in with the new on offense
Saturday, July 28, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The linemen who make the holes for the Steelers' offense find themselves trying to fill a few this summer.
Some holes aren't the kind that Willie Parker can run through. There are others, such as the job openings that supposedly exist on the offensive line: One at center, one at right guard and another at right tackle.
For sure, there is a new job available at center because of the retirement of two-time Pro Bowler Jeff Hartings. Either longtime heir apparent Chukky Okobi or newcomer Sean Mahan will start. As for the others, it's open more to conjecture than official job postings.
"As of right now, I'm penciled in as a starter, so I don't feel I'm fighting," right tackle Max Starks said. "It's more of a maintenance thing. I'm going to do the same approach as previous camps, play my best ball and whatever coach feels is necessary for the best of this team will happen."
Starks has started the past two seasons at right tackle. Kendall Simmons has started at right guard every season since the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2002, except when his ACL was torn in training camp in 2004.
Coupled with the longtime left tackle Marvel Smith and left guard Alan Faneca, it's a line that's been together for a good while, as modern NFL lines go, and one that has been successful as well. Why can't they continue that?
"This is my seventh year," Okobi said. "I've played with all these guys in the past. You have to look at Marvel and Max, Kendall and Alan -- they're the same guys you won a Super Bowl with, so I don't see why not."
Simmons looks to be in great shape and the so-called competition with Chris Kemoeatu looks to be over, if there ever really was a competition. It's possible, even, that the Steelers will get going soon on a new contract for Simmons, who has one year left.
Starks is in the fight of his early career with second-year tackle Willie Colon. The Steelers did tender Starks a one-year contract of $1.85 million as a restricted free agent, so it's not as if they think the lesser of him. It's more Colon than anything; he has been impressive since the day they drafted him in the fourth round from Hofstra and he's making a real bid to start. If Colon does not start, he almost surely will be the top backup tackle and perhaps even at guard.
There has been no negotiation and no talk of such to extend Starks' contract, and he would be an unrestricted free agent next March. He seems to have shed a lot of weight since the spring. His problem has always been that while he does have big feet, at size 19, he is not very light on them and can be beaten by speed rushers. He has been a good run blocker and he's a massive 6 feet 8 and 340 or so pounds.
"This is my last year," Starks said matter-of-factly. "We always play for extensions. This year, I'm just trying to help my team be the best."
There will be a new starter at right tackle only if Colon outperforms Starks, so that would not necessarily constitute a hole at tackle.
Center is the purest form of competition because the job was officially flung open after Hartings' retirement. At first, it appeared it belonged to Okobi. He took a pay cut to remain with the Steelers last season when Hartings, who talked about retiring the past several seasons, decided to stay on for 2006. Okobi is due a $2 million salary this season, which means he was paid based on the fact the team thought he would start.
But then the Steelers signed Mahan as their only big-time unrestricted free agent addition, and they paid him a $4 million signing bonus as part of a five-year, $17 million contract. That's usually not what they pay backups, either. Plus, Mahan played on a team that had Mike Tomlin as its secondary coach until last season, so the Steelers' new head coach apparently liked what he saw in Tampa Bay.
Mahan, who weighs 301 pounds, started 12 games in 2006, but none at center -- nine at left guard and three at right guard. He started all 16 games at right guard in 2005. The only time he has started at center came in 2004, when he made all eight of his starts at center.
But he makes no bones about why the Steelers signed him.
"I came here primarily to play center unless a need comes up at guard," Mahan said.
Okobi has run with the first team since camp opened, but Tomlin is expected to give Mahan time there as well. The players and the coach -- and, no doubt, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- would like to have a decision at center as soon as possible.
"Whoever's going to be in there, you want to be in there so you can mesh with the other guys and get your timing down and everything with the other guys," Mahan said.
"The sooner the better," line coach Larry Zierlein said. "But we don't want to hurry it and maybe not get the right guy. I hate to set a date, but you would like to play the last two preseason games knowing who the guy was, so hopefully, we would be there at that point."