The O-Line, Playmakers and Keeping the Offense Going

Remember last August, like just about every preseason in recent memory, when we were worried about (in no particular order): the offensive line and special teams? Those concerns were three months in the making after the Steelers again passed on first-round offensive line talent and left Big Ben’s health in the hands of Max, Chris, Justin, Trai and Willie.

But after watching Ben take a weekly beating during the 2008 season (and let’s be honest, a lot of it was his own doing), I had come to terms with the disarray along the o-line. In fact, a year ago I wrote this:

“I’m over the o-line issues. Every August we bellyache about how bad things are, Ben subsequently gets sacked 450 times, and the Steelers somehow make it to the postseason. We then spend the spring bellyaching about how the team has to take only fat guys in the draft. Inevitably, it doesn’t happen, they get a few second-day stiffs, and the process repeats itself. Could Pittsburgh have a better offensive line? Um, hell yeah. But last year, 31 other teams would have gladly taken Starks, Kemoeatu, Hartwig, Stapleton and Colon if that mean winning a Super Bowl.”

Of course, the Steelers didn’t make the playoffs in 2009, but that had less to do with the offensive line than it did with Troy Polamalu and the disappearing defense. I bring all this up because Pittsburgh will be without Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season, the offensive line is Colon-less, and the running game consists of Rashard Mendenhall and, well, that’s about it.

When pressed about o-line issues a year ago at this time, Mike Tomlin said something about finding other ways to slow defensive pressure. Namely: using the offensive weapons at Big Ben’s disposal and forcing the defense to make tough decisions — either rush a 6-5, 300-pound quarterback who can’t be tackled, or drop into coverage at give said quarterback even more time in the pocket to find one of his many big-play threats. It sounded good on paper and, as it turned out, it worked out pretty well in practice, too.

Now, though, the Steelers will be without their best offensive player for a month, and depending on what you thought of Santonio Holmes’ importance, they won’t have their biggest playmaker, either. The drop-off from Ben to Byron or Dennis is huge and no sane person can dispute that the offense is much less explosive without him. But Mike Wallace’s emergence, along with the daily glowing reports on 2010 third-rounder Emmanuel Sanders, makes me think that Holmes won’t be missed. (And don’t misunderstand: I was floored when Pittsburgh shipped him to New York for what basically amounted to a six-pack of non-alcoholic beer, but all else equal, the team will manage without him. Just like they did when Plax left and they brought Cedrick Freaking Wilson … and promptly won the Super Bowl.)

So here’s the deal: can Bruce Arians figure out a way to get the ball in the hands of Hines, Wallace, Sanders, Mendenhall and Miller without getting Byron killed? The easy answer is to just have the Steelers run the ball more, placating fans and Dan II in the process. But you and I both know that that’s not how Arians’ rolls. He’s proven that time and again and if you’re expecting a sudden change in philosophy, you’ll probably be shocked when the Steelers don’t take a left tackle in the first round of the 2011 draft.

One option — and this has been mentioned in the local media the last few days — is to find a way to get Dennis Dixon involved, even if he’s not the primary quarterback. Trai Essex told ESPN Radio’s Ken Laird Thursday that, “We’re incorporating [Dixon] as a RB in a lot of plays we already have installed, making them more of an option form… you have to account for both the QB and the RB running and passing. It seems to be working pretty well.”

And while Arians continues to rule out Dixon in the Wildcat, he did say recently that Dennis could be used as a “change of pace” quarterback.

Honestly, I don’t see Arians struggling to get the ball to his playmakers — he’s had no trouble making that happen in the past, elite quarterback under center or not — the problem is the manner in which he does it (end arounds to Holmes or Hines on 3rd-and-2 immediately come to mind).

Yes, in a perfect world the Steelers o-line would be settled. But if this were a perfect world, Cowher never would have drafted Alonzo Jackson, or let Ricardo Colclough return punts, or started Tommy Maddux over Charlie Batch. And Tomlin wouldn’t have okayed the Big Ben quarterback sneak during the Jags wild card game in January 2008. (Okay, you get it. Moving on…)

Here’s the point: every team has questions and it’s how they address them that determines their fates. (Hokum? Perhaps. But there’s also some truth there, too.) Pittsburgh has found a way to manage their o-line liabilities. In 2009 it included a pass-happy offense that, save the short-game running game woes, was wildly successful.

In 2010, it means four weeks without Ben. Philosophically, the team’s approach will have to change, but that could actually be in their favor. Opponents will now have to prepare for Leftwich and Change of Pace Dixon, as well as Hines/Wallace/Randle El/Sanders/Mendenhall backfield silliness and whatever else Arians can dream up. It’s about as far from “Steelers football” as you can get, but we’re in no position to be making demands.

And you know what? None of this matters if the defense plays like it actually remembers how to tackle. (I’m not even saying at their 2008 level, which was insane, I just mean making the tackles they’re supposed to make and not letting receivers run uncovered through the secondary.) As long as I’m wishing for stuff: is it too much to ask the special teams to show up, too?

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  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    It was a hell of six-pack of non-alcoholic beer, if it helped you to get back McFadden…otherwise, I am with you, this team is designed to work with a bunch of mediocre o-line men (Colon included, of course) just like the Colts are designed to work with no name linebackers or like Philly is designed to work with 180 pounds RB's.

  • Randy Steele

    I agree. We forget that you can't have everything–unless you're the Yankees, of course.

  • drinkingclub

    I am hoping all the reports about Ziggy Hood playing great are not just wishful thinking, and that Palamalu can play all year.

  • Ted

    Great read, but why do so many Steeler fans forget just how good Maddox was in 2002? I like Charlie and he was more consistent and careful with the football than Maddox, but he could have never played at that high a level. If the Steelers did not have one of their worst secondaries ever that season, T-Gun could have been a Super Bowl winner.