There were far more negatives than positives from the Steelers’ offensive line in last night’s 24-17 preseason win over the New York Giants. After just one viewing, I was pleasantly surprised and very pleased with the performance of embattled reserve tackle Tony Hills, who most believed before this game was a long-shot to make the team’s roster.
I am sure J.J. will provide more detailed and expert videotape analysis of the entire offensive line later in the week and he has already done so for two other tackles.
Without breaking down the game tape yet, I am almost ready to make what seemed like a far-fetched prediction just a couple of weeks ago. Tony Hills will make this team and veteran starting center Justin Hartwig may end up on the waiver wire as a result.
Mammoth 35-year-old Flozell Adams was wisely signed by the Steelers before training camp, after Willie Colon – the team’s best player on an already-subpar NFL offensive line – was lost for the year with an Achilles injury.
But Adams, who played left tackle for the vast majority of his lengthy career with the Cowboys, has looked poor in two preseason games while having to learn a new scheme, play with new teammates, and, more importantly, learn how to play right tackle.
Veteran journeyman Jonathan Scott has probably looked better than Adams in the two preseason games, but is not a serviceable NFL starting tackle, as shown in this analysis that broke down Scott’s play with the hapless Bills last season.
Right now, Pittsburgh’s best starting tackle duo by midseason may be Hills at left tackle, with veteran starter Max Starks moving over to the right side, where he has significant starting experience and already selflessly volunteered to make such a move for the benefit of the team after Colon’s injury.
Another option would be to let Adams play his natural left tackle position, with Starks again moving over to right tackle. In contrast to Hills and Adams, Scott is more suitable and far more comfortable at right tackle than the left side, so Starks could stay put if Scott ends up the starter.
None of these look like very appealing options, although the athletic and younger Hills provides the most upside.
Now in his fourth season after being a developmental fourth-round pick from the University of Texas, Hills has been nothing more than a poor practice player who has never seen game action during his three years in Pittsburgh.
However, he may now be finally maturing into a serviceable run and pass blocker if the first two preseason games this fall are any indication.
Reports out of training camp had Adams, Scott and especially Hills all playing poor at tackle. Part of that, however, must be attributed to the opposition they have faced. There is not another 3-4 defensive scheme in the NFL that has a better three-man rotation at defensive end than the Steelers’ trio of Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and last year’s first-round pick, Ziggy Hood.
After those three are a trio of serviceable NFL 3-4 defensive ends (veteran Nick Eason, second-year-man Sunny Harris and rookie Doug Worthington) battling every day in camp for 1-2 roster spots.
It only gets tougher against Pittsburgh superstar starting linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who are easily the best outside pass-rushing tandem in the NFL, as the duo has combined for a league-high 51 sacks in their two seasons together as starters.
In reserve, the Steelers have two of their first four picks in the 2010 NFL draft in Jason Worilds and Thad Gibson, with Gibson being one of the standouts in the Steelers’ training camp and preseason thus far. And we all know that Kevin Colbert values having great reserve linebackers far more than offensive tackles, evident by his drafting strategy over the past decade.
Therefore, all of the reports of Hills’ poor play may have been due somewhat to the opposition. With such uncertainty at tackle for the Steelers, I think Adams, Scott and Hills should all make the team. Adams is still the most experienced of the three, although his $2.5 non-guaranteed salary for this fall makes him likely to be cut if he is not the opening-day starter. Odds remain greatest, though, that he will start the first game.
Scott is a serviceable reserve, while Hills has the most potential of the three and may be the Steelers’ best option at left tackle if Starks went down with an injury.
The problem is that the Steelers do not seem to have roster spots for all three. Pittsburgh should not cut a more talented, younger defensive player just to keep 10 offensive linemen. Nine is the number of offensive linemen who should and will likely be kept on the 53-man roster this fall.
Chris Kemoeatu is the starting left guard, rookie first-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey appears likely to replace veteran Justin Hartwig as the starting center, probably on opening day, and the Steelers’ staff seemingly desires to keep Trai Essex as their starting right guard for a second consecutive season.
Essex, who has experience playing every offensive line spot in regular-season games but center, is another option at tackle. However, the Steelers’ staff seems reluctant to do such wholesale maneuvering.
Reserve Ramon Foster, who started three games last year at guard and saw lots of playing time as Pittsburgh’s sixth offensive lineman even though he was an undrafted rookie free agent from Tennessee, is also a roster lock.
So should be Doug Legursky, who was the Steelers’ No. 7 offensive lineman last year. The top Steelers beat writers, Ed Bouchette and Jim Wexell, have both predicted Pouncey will start at center on opening day. Both contended that Hartwig would still likely make the roster, but that was before Adams’ porous play and Hills’ strong performance on Saturday.
Hartwig has not played guard since his rookie season and he complained so much about that experience that the Panthers released him when he was no longer their starting center. In my view, Legursky is a far better option to be the reserve center/guard on game days (when the Steelers only dress seven offensive linemen) than Hartwig.
Legursky, also a natural center, is bigger, stronger and faster than Hartwig, and thus a more serviceable option at guard, where he has seen plenty of action in two preseason games.
Legursky’s versatility is aided by his potential as a short-yardage fullback. Finally, since the draft, no one ever expected Hartwig to be on the Steleers’ roster for 2011 and the reason he was not mentioned as a potential waiver casualty for this fall was because Pittsburgh initially planned to use Pouncey at right guard as a rookie. In contrast to Hartwig, the second-year Legursky is in Pittsburgh’s long-term plans.
The situation has obviously changed due to turmoil at tackle and the rapid development of Pouncey at center; and thus so should the Steelers’ plan.
I do not know who should start at right tackle and shutter at the thought of immobile Bryon Leftwich playing behind this Steelers’ line for the first four games. That seems like a recipe for a 1-3 record, which would likely end the team’s realistic postseason hopes before superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns from suspension.
However, I do believe the Steelers would be better served by having more options at tackle on its 53-man roster, and that would mean keeping Adams, Scott and Hills, while cutting Hartwig. If he is not going to be on the 45-man game-day roster and is one of three natural centers, why keep Hartwig at all?