With an aging Pittsburgh team starting to lose key players due to injuries, a promising 2010 season thus far is beginning to look a lot more like 2007 and 2009, and that should scare the dickens out of Steeler fans.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that Max Starks’ neck injury is much more serious than initially thought and the veteran starting left tackle may be lost for the season. This would mark the second starting offensive tackle Pittsburgh has lost this year, since Willie Colon tore his Achilles right before training camp.
At best Starks is an average NFL starting left tackle, a position where most teams place their best offensive lineman. The problem is that the fall-off behind him on the Pittsburgh roster is precipitous. The Steelers have only three options to replace Starks if he is indeed lost for the season and none engender much hope that this team will win a seventh Super Bowl title.
The first option and the most likely for this Sunday’s game against New England is to insert veteran, journeyman Jonathan Scott at left tackle. Scott has seen action at both tackle spots this fall. While his play has been inconsistent, it has been much better than anticipated after Scott yielded 8.5 sacks in 8 starts last year for Buffalo and signed with Pittsburgh for a non-guaranteed, veteran’s minimum contract after receiving no other free-agent offers.
Pittsburgh will likely have to give Scott a lot of help against certain opponents, including outright double-teams, chips by Heath Miller and Hines Ward that will further slown down a receiving corps that has struggled to get open on hot reads, and utilize far more plays that keep a running back on the left side beside quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on passing downs.
However, if the Scott experiment at left tackle proves disastrous, Pittsburgh may opt to flip Scott to right tackle and move Flozell Adams from the rightside to left tackle, a position where he was a 5-time Pro-Bowl selection for the Cowboys, including as recently as 2008.
Adams has clearly lost a step or two since his prime. His signing was the best the Steelers could do to replace Colon and his transition to right tackle has been far from flawless. However, considering the circumstances, he was a great signee by the Steelers and he may still be better at left tackle due to his familiarity with the position.
The final of three realistic options for Pittsburgh would be to move starting right guard Trai Essex to left tackle, a position where Essex saw action and some spot starting duty earlier in his career. Doug Legursky, who started four games at right guard while Essex was sidelined this year, would return to the starting lineup. However, this is the least likely option, since Essex was not very good at left tackle when he was younger, lighter and quicker, and Legursky was unimpressive as a starter at right guard this fall.
This injury is particularly frustrating because Pittsburgh’s lack of depth at offensive tackle is self-created due to a drafting philosophy of taking the best player available that has paid off very well for certain positions. However, the Steelers are the only team among 32 NFL franchises that did not draft an offensive tackle prospect in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft over the last decade (2001-10).
It is true that teams often reach for tackle prospects due to the importance of the position and thus too many of these picks end up busts. But when everybody is reaching for players at a specific position, you have to eventually reach as well or you end up with a situation like Pittsburgh currently finds itself at tackle.
Some thought the Steelers reached somewhat the last time it actually took an offensive tackle in the first two rounds, tabbing undersized Marvel Smith from Arizona State early in the second round of the 2000 NFL Draft. Smith turned out to be arguably the Steelers’ best offensive tackle over the last 20 years. You can expect Pittsburgh to finally reach for an offensive tackle in the first two rounds of a 2011 NFL Draft that appears weak at that spot compared to recent years.
Unfortunately, that reactive decision will not help the Steelers’ predicament right now. All we can hope for now is that Scott goes from being a mildly pleasant surprise as a reserve tackle to shocking scouts of 31 other franchises by emerging as a quality starting left tackle in a league that places more value on this position than any other.