Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
Posted on February 14, 2011 by ryan
“Draft an offensive lineman!”
That has been the Steelers fans’ springtime rallying cry for the last decade or so. And after the 2010 season, it hasn’t changed. Unlike year’s past, though, Pittsburgh had the makings of an above-average unit for the first time since 2005. But injuries — starting in preseason and continuing through the Super Bowl — squashed those plans.
Willie Colon, Max Starks and Maurkice Pouncey gave way to Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott and Doug Legursky. And while there were rough patches, the replacements were … adequate. Which, all things considered, is probably more than you could ask for.
Assuming Colon and Starks return in 2011 (and assuming there will be an NFL season), the Steelers will be in the market for a starting guard to join Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu, right? For shiggles, let’s say the team re-signs Scott (the guy was a lightning rod for most of the season, but he held it together during the stretch run; that’s worth something, I’d think), and Flozell returns, too. Should the organization’s first priority be to find a right guard? Put differently: would that have been the difference in the Steelers’ losses last season?
Historically, one of the knocks on the o-line was its inability to keep Big Ben upright. Turns out, Roethlisberger’s knack for extending plays — and taking a few hits while doing so — had a lot to do with the unit’s overall success. Ironical, yes.
But here’s the thing: the combination of a mediocre group of five fat guys in front of a scramblin’, tough franchise quarterback mitigates the need for a top-flight offensive lineman, right?
Glass half full: the Steelers’ o-line improved over the course of the season and had its best game in the Super Bowl. That’s pretty much how you draw it up heading into training camp: get better each week and play your best when it counts most.
Glass half empty: Despite Ben’s elusiveness, the hits add up. (See the rearranged nose, the frankenboot and various other ailments we don’t even know about.) Roethlisberger isn’t a rhythm quarterback, at least in the sense that the ball regularly comes out when he is at the top of his 3-, 5- or 7-step drop. But it’s hard to argue that having a more competent group in front of Ben won’t keep him safer.
The Steelers selected Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th overall pick last spring, he immediately moved into the starting lineup and stayed there right up until he was injured in the AFC Championship game. Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl and was Pittsburgh’s best o-lineman. He was a huge upgrade over Justin Hartwig and Sean Mahan, but the offensive line didn’t implode when Legursky replaced Pouncey in the Super Bowl. Just the opposite.
Football Outsiders’ Ben Muth after the game:
But this column isn’t about the Packers, it’s about the Steelers offensive line. I thought they played great football. They played against one of the best defenses in the NFL and gave up one coverage sack. They averaged 5.5 yards a carry on the ground. If someone would have released a photo journal of me watching the Super Bowl (which is a guaranteed best seller) it would be called Shock and Awe. I was shocked they played so well, and a little in awe of how a much maligned and hurting group pulled together for an incredible performance.
It’s difficult to dream up a scenario that includes the words, “[Pittsburgh's] worst unit, their offensive line, played [its] best game” only to find out that the Steelers lost. Considered separately, an average defensive effort, or an off-night from the franchise quarterback and you might still expect a Pittsburgh victory. But against the Packers, the NFL’s second-best defense, the Steelers offensive line, a punch line all season, had its best game. A lot of the credit should go to Sean Kugler, who has a strong case for team MVP.
Look, we’re talking about a rag-tag bunch; you can always make a case for why Pittsburgh should take an offensive lineman with first-round pick. But given how well Kugler coached these guys up, and that Starks and Colon will return in the summer (hey, consider them two high-round selections if that makes you feel better), maybe the Steelers, at the margins and with limited resources, would be better off using the 31st pick on a cornerback.
The thought first crossed my mind after reading GlennW’s comment in last week’s discussion thread. It basically boils down to this:
I’m coming around to the notion that we need to draft a CB in the first round if that special player is available. When you look at where we’ve failed against the best of the best (Patriots, Packers, even the Jets to an extent) as opposed to versus our division rivals or the run-of-the-mills from the rest of the league, it’s the total inability to decently defend the pass even with some upfront pressure on the QB. I re-watched the Super Bowl, and McFadden was just awful lined up against the immortal Jordy Nelson, twisted and turned every which way. I think McFadden is hopeless, and that down the stretch our pass defense was actually better (but not by much) when McFadden was injured and totally out of the equation with Gay replacing him outside, even if we lost depth in the nickel/dime.
As much as it pains me, I can’t disagree about B-Mac. Most of his 2010 season went something like this: a) leave game after the first series because of the nagging hip pointer injury, b) return and get toasted for the rest of the afternoon.
When the Steelers traded for B-Mac last offseason, he admitted that his one-year stint in Arizona had been marred by injuries. And maybe that’s what happened in 2010, too. Whatever: injuries or incompetence, it doesn’t matter. When McFadden played, he wasn’t good. When he was out, William Gay moved to cornerback, which meant that Anthony Madison played nickel and (deep breath) Keenan Lewis played dime.
The lack of depth at cornerback is a much bigger problem than the o-line woes.
Kugler found enough duct-tape to hold the offensive line together, and Big Ben did the rest. For Dick LeBeau, subpar cornerbacks (outside of Ike, another priority re-signing) meant that he had to be more conservative with Troy Polamalu.
After the Super Bowl, one of the Dallas Morning News writers suggested that Polamalu’s Defensive Player of the Year Award was “tarnished” because Troy was a no-show for most of the playoffs. Maybe he was injured. Or perhaps, as Dale Lolley speculated last week, Troy wasn’t his usual effective self by necessity:
…It’s my feeling the Steelers were so concerned with their corners outside of Ike Taylor that they felt they had to keep Polamalu deep to protect from being beaten over the top. (sure wish we had drafted a CB last year instead of another LB. - mesa)
We saw Ryan Clark down in the box at times, but he doesn’t have anywhere near Polamalu’s speed. I believe they felt with McFadden hobbled, that exposed them to the deep ball with McFadden, William Gay and Anthony Madison, particularly with Clark as the only deep safety. It drives home the fact that this team needs to upgrade its speed in the secondary.
And then there’s this, from NFL Network’s Albert Breer:
[O]n the Steelers’ 55 defensive snaps in Super Bowl XLV, safety Troy Polamalu lined up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap just three times, an enormously low number for a player who’s at his best when he’s all over the place.
Pittsburgh’s contention all week was that the Packers’ spread wouldn’t faze its defense, but the way the players were deployed indicates something else entirely. The Steelers went to more single-safety looks with three and four corners on the field to contend with Green Bay’s receivers, at times taking Ryan Clark off the field and having Polamalu take on some of his ‘center fielder’ responsibilities.
Breer’s comments go back to what GlennW wrote above (and something most fans have been lamenting all season): LeBeau’s defensive philosophy works against 90 percent of the offenses, but the ones that give the Steelers the most trouble — the Pats, Saints, Packers — routinely make the playoffs.
If history is any guide, who the Steelers select 31st overall will come down to three words: best player available. It’s a rough outline for how the organization builds its roster, and for the most part, it has been a successful strategy.
ProFootballFocus.com notes that Kemoeatu was dreadful in 2010, which means that the Steelers could realistically be in the market for two starting interior linemen. The counterargument is that the return of Colon and Starks should mean more stability across the unit, lessening Kemoeatu’s ineffectiveness.
But there is no help on the way for the secondary. Ike Taylor is a top-flight cornerback, but that’s it. B-Mac’s best days appear to be in the rearview, and we have seen what happens when Gay starts. Madison is on the roster for his special-teams prowess and I’m fine if the only time he sees the field are in special-teams situations. Lewis, in a word, has been disappointing. In a perfect world, Pittsburgh would have a legit NFL corner opposite Taylor, and have B-Mac and Gay (another free agent) play in the sub packages.
It comes down to this: can the Steelers compete with their current secondary setup? Yep. They managed it last season and the two seasons prior to that, too (the primary difference: Deshea Townsend was the nickel back until this year). Can the Steelers win consistently against the league’s most dangerous offenses, offenses that feature quick passing and defensive game plans that require bump-and-run man coverage? Nope.
Either way (and depending on how things play out in front of them), the Steelers can’t go far wrong by taking the best offensive lineman or cornerback available with the 31st selection. (If you’re interested, CBS’ Rob Rang has Pittsburgh taking guard Danny Watkins, and CBS’ Chad Reuter thinks it will be tackle Derek Sherrod.)
Then again, what do I know. Leading up to the 2004 draft, I thought that the Steelers should take a cornerback over a quarterback. (DeAngelo Hall … can you imagine how that train wreck would have played out?), And I wasn’t thrilled with the Lawrence Timmons selection in 2007. A year later, nobody thought Rashard Mendenhall would be around when Pittsburgh went on the clock. Ben, Juan and Humpy have all had big roles in the organization’s success, which only goes to reinforce what we already knew: there’s a reason nobody asks me for personnel advice. So don’t be surprised if the Steelers take another linebacker*.
* joke … I think