Protecting Big Ben: Offensive Linemen or Weapons?

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…

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  • StillerFan

    Fans always expect their team to hit on every pick too, and that is simply not a reality. We know this, and Colbert knows that despite his and his staffs diligence, they aren’t going to hit on every pick. How bad would it be if he traded up in the first round to get a pick that ended up doing nothing for us?

    Trading up for mediocre talent is not the way the steelers do things (lets leave sepulveda out of this), and Holmes and Troy were both talents regarded as much higher than mediocre.

    In hindsight, I would have been happy to have the steelers trade everything after the 1st round for a shot at a tackle, but that’s just the way that potentially historically poor draft has worked out.

    • Cols714

      That was a pretty terrible draft. But it did get us Mendenhall who is easily a top 10 RB these days. And Sweed, well he figured out the hardest part of being an NFL receiver, that is how to get open. But the simple part, catching the ball, remains unlearned.

  • steeler junky

    Good assessment; Have to agree on the approach. I have not been one of those who see the Steelers taking a OT in the first round unless Colon doesn’t come back, but I have been hoping for a center and two top notch guards. The Steelers got one so far. A OG would be great this season. One who is good enough to start sooner rather than later.

    • Cols714

      This is it exactly. The Steelers biggest needs have been at the center of the line, not the tackles. Although with Colon and Starks both injured, that equation might change next year.

      • Randy Steele

        …and who knows? Maybe Maurkice’s twin brother will be available late in the first round, eh?

  • Mike L

    The way I see the draft: in the first round you have a 10-30% chance to get an elite player. A 60-80% chance to get a good starter and a 10-30% chance to land a career backup/bust. Each round thereafter the % chances drop. How many 5th rd draft picks ever get offered a 2nd contract.
    For coveted positions like LT teams reach because it is a highly paid position and thus one of greater value. QB has proven slightly different because they get more in incentives, Ben was an 11th pick yet his contract was for 40 mil. Quinn and Rogers had escalators to 20 mil+. This is why QB have been sliding in recent years. The best draft classes are often the ones with the most picks, see Fanhouse. This further shows chosing quality players often to be a crapshot. By trading up you have less picks and increase the chance of a poor draft. In contrast to that theory, good teams should trade up, if they have a solid team coming back. This year the Steelers needed depth and ST help, so trading up was not a good choice. Needing a quality backup 3-4 OLB forced the Steelers to take 2. Not a bad choice, considering you do not know if one will get hurt (rookies have more injury problems) and your chances of one failing is about 50% considering past Steelers and league wide attempts to convert college DEs into 3-4 OLB. If Worilds was about 50-50 chance to pan out Gibson was 30-40%. Combined those are good odds of getting the backup the Steelers needed this year, and we all know the defense is good only when they get a strong pass rush. With Sylvester the Steelers needed 2 of the 3 LBs drafted to help special teams Sylvester’s contribution made Worilds the choice at back-up OLB and himself the ST choice, leaving Gibson a luxury in a good draft.
    I think the Texans were targeting Mike Jenkins over Duane Brown and the Cowboys swiped him one pick earlier remember the Texans traded down, and most likely thought they could still get their guy. In last year’s draft I think the Steelers had Beatty for LT but the Giants swiped him at 62nd so the steelers traded down and luckily added Mike Wallace. With the Steelers adding much need depth this year, I would like to see them trade up next year if there is a good OL player that they like. Pouncey would not have lasted much past 15th this year and I think you will have to go up to around 15th to get the quality guy you want. On the bright side the Eagles traded (2)3rd rd picks to move up from 24th to 13th, so I am being hopeful for the 2011 draft.

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