In the wake of Max Starks landing on injured reserve — and the subsequent back and forth about why the organization refuses to address the offensive line (obvious exception: Maurkice Pouncey) through the early part of the draft — I got to thinking about something Mike Tomlin said minutes after the Steelers used their first two picks of the 2008 draft on running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed.
Heading into that weekend everybody identified the offensive line as a need (you know, like every other draft weekend this century). Some of my favorites in February and March to end up in Pittsburgh — Branden Albert, Chris Williams and Jeff Otah (Ryan Clady didn’t have a chance in hell of slipping to the 23rd pick and there were questions about Gosder Cherlius’ work ethic) — slowly worked their way up draft boards and by that last Saturday in April, all were gone when Pittsburgh went on the clock.
And so went another Day 1 of the draft without addressing the needs that most drove fans crazy. But then Tomlin went on the NFL Network and said something that resonated with me at the time, and which now seems appropriate given our recent discussions about the o-line.
The excerpt below is taken from a post I originally wrote for Steel City Insider on April 28, 2008.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 23rd pick: as players previously identified as best suited (and sometimes barely suited — the Falcons drafted Sam Baker 21st overall for cripe’s sake) to plug leaks along the offensive and defensive lines went off the board, it became clear that Pittsburgh could end up with either a running back or a wide receiver. And I fully embraced that possibility. Unlike, say, the Houston Texans, who watched seven offensive tackles go off the board only to panic, trade up, and reach for Duane Brown, the Steelers stayed the course, but in a good way.
And the process repeated itself one round later. Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed were coming to Pittsburgh, a notion that no one had imagined on Saturday morning. In the span of a few hours, Pittsburgh found a way to save Willie Parker from the Curse of 370, and add a big-play wide receiver who also happens to resemble the one they let walk three years ago.
There were still glaring issues along the offensive line, and various defensive needs, but it was hard to find fault with the Day 1 strategy. Opinions varied on Day 2 — it wouldn’t be a Kevin Colbert draft if that wasn’t the case — but after Pittsburgh made their final selection in 2008, Mike Tomlin appeared on Total Access to rehash a hectic two days. When Jamie Dukes, quite possibly the dumbest person on television, wondered why the Steelers didn’t better address the gaping hole on the offensive line (his best question of the weekend, by the way), Tomlin offered an interesting response, basically the same theory he put forward when talking to the local media on Saturday:
“There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback … You can get linemen or you can get him weapons – people that people have to account for. Obviously with this pick, we’ve gotten a weapon. So what he is able to do on a football field will help our quarterback and our football team.”
On its face, it sounds like a flippant remark; spin intended to obfuscate the obvious o-line deficiencies. And maybe it was; but there is also some truth to Tomlin’s statement. Bill Belichick surrounded Tom Brady with enough weapons to mask a mediocre group of pass blockers, and the Patriots set all kinds of scoring records on the way to a schadenfreude-tastic Super Bowl implosion (but prior to that, they won 18 games, most in convincing fashion). The problem, though, is that the quarterback is vulnerable — Brady spent plenty of time picking himself off the turf (usually after a big play, so that’s the trade-off). For the Roethlisberger, who sometimes seems to hold onto the ball for the sole purpose of taking a “there’s no way he gets up from that” hit, such a scheme might not be the best use of $100 million.
But what were the Steelers going to do, trade up for Cherilus or Otah? Uh, no. Most fans are adherents of the best-player-available approach to roster-building. Some are more fanatical than others, but we all agree that it trumps the “draft for need” philosophy that resulted in the Texans wondering why the hell they traded up for Duane Brown. And while such a strategy would have no doubt pleased Jamie Dukes immensely, Big Ben would have been less thrilled. Not so much because he didn’t get his tall wideout, but because he has NFL Network like the rest of us; he knows Cherilus, Otah or whomever wouldn’t have made his job any easier. If anything, he’d take just as many behind-the-line beatings. Neither lineman would have seen much time next season, which, given how the draft unfolded and the current state of the Steelers’ front five, renders the selection pretty much meaningless.
The line is still in shambles, but now, Roethlisberger at least has options. And these options, certainly more than the addition of one fat guy who might not even get on the field as a rookie, will affect how opponents game-plan the Steelers. Big Ben will still take some hits — it’s in his nature, apparently — but if nothing else, we have seen the last of the season-ending 3rd-and-6 quarterback sneaks. And for me, that’s well worth a first-round running back and a tall wideout.
As it turns out, the 2008 Steelers’ offense was middle of the road. According to Football Outsiders, the unit ranked 21st overall (19th through the air, 15th on the ground). Pittsburgh’s o-line ranked 29th in adjusted sack rate, with Ben going down on 9.2 percent of his dropbacks. (In terms of whole numbers, Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times in ’08.)
Not exactly “protecting the quarterback” with all the shiny new “weapons,” but I can’t imagine anybody was worried about any of that when the Steeers won the Super Bowl. (Also worth mentioning: of those weapons selected in the ’08 draft, Mendenhall landed on IR early in the season after Ray Lewis broke his shoulder and Limas … well, we all know how that turned out. So the Steelers were still able to cobble together a championship team without their two skill-position rookies.)
If that doesn’t assuage your concerns about the o-line deficiencies, just know this: Bruce Arians has been here before. He knows what to do. Wait, what? That makes you feel worse? Moving on…