Starks Out, Season Doomed … Now What?

We spend a lot of time talking about planning — whether it’s for the next opponent, the next free-agency signing period, the next draft, or next season. But football also involves a lot of luck.

The Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger fall in their laps with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft. Then there’s Santonio Holmes’ back-of-the-end-zone touchdown grab over three Cardinals defenders in the closing moments of Super Bowl XLIII. I think we can all agree that was lucky, too. But it goes both ways: Kendall Simmons was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes before the 2003 season and a once-promising career began its death spiral. And the 2009 season was a string of unfortunate events (some of them self-inflicted, others just … well, unlucky) that culminated in five straight losses.

And now Max Starks joins Willie Colon on injured reserve, effectively ending the Steelers’ Super Bowl hopes.

Actually, I don’t believe that.

I don’t disagree that Starks’ loss is an issue, especially since depth along the offensive line always is, but it’s not like Pittsburgh is suddenly without Ben Roethlisberger — or worse — Troy Polamalu for the rest of the year.

Ed Bouchette wrote this morning about the Steelers’ inability to draft offensive linemen. It’s a familiar complaint and one I’ve written about before. Look, with the 53-man roster limits and the crapshoot that is the draft, it’s impossible to have quality depth at every position. You just can’t have every backup be at replacement level or better. And yet Pittsburgh is one of the deepest teams in the league, largely because scouts, coaches and the front office are all pretty good at putting together a roster.

Whatever. Ed wonders:

They have drafted no tackles above the fourth round since Trai Essex in 2005 and he is now a guard – unless they start moving around pieces this week because of the season-ending injury to Max Starks and make him back into a left or right tackle. I don’t think they will do that – yet, especially if guard Chris Kemoeatu cannot play this week. Jonathan Scott will be the man.

They have drafted more tight ends in the first three rounds since 2005 than they have tackles – 2-0 with Heath Miller in 2005 and Matt Spaeth in 2007, on the third round. I always thought the Spaeth drafting was ludicrous because they knew Miller was going to be their top man forever and they were using a third-round pick on a guy who would never be more than their No. 2 tight end.

(The great irony is that JJ extols Spaeth’s blocking abilities on a weekly basis.)

I’d encourage Ed to tell me which offensive lineman the Steelers should have selected in the first three rounds instead of the players they ended up taking. More than that, which offensive tackles were available that would now step in and seamlessly fill in for Starks? Here’s a handy link for your convenience. I’ll wait.

In the meantime, something to keep in mind: JJ has made this point countless times this season and now seems like a good time to reiterate it: if there’s one strength to Pittsburgh’s offensive line it’s that there’s not much difference between the starters and the backups. The problem, of course, is that the starters (save Maurkice Pouncey — you might remember him as the Steelers’ 2010 first-round pick) are mediocre. The backups are probably something a little less than that. But there isn’t much difference between the second-best linemen and the last name on the list. Depending on your perspective, there are worse problems to have.

And let’s not act like we just lost Jonathan Ogden. Starks has been serviceable this season. He missed the Week 2 Tennessee game with an ankle injury and appeared slower and less effective since he returned to the starting lineup.

Things could be better, yes, but realistically, Pittsburgh isn’t that much worse off than they were before Monday night. I alluded to it above, but if I’m making a list of guys the team can’t win without, it starts with Troy and Ben, and Max Starks is probably somewhere in the middle of that list. But it’s not so bad that the Steelers shouldn’t continue to play at the same level.

It’s not ideal, but as Laird would often say, “It is what it is.” And not even a time machine would fix it.

Yes, the offensive line is perennially this team’s Achilles’ heel but that doesn’t give Pittsburgh license to reach for players. Ted, perhaps the most impassioned Steelers fan I know, feels differently. Early today he wrote:

“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.”

That’s a horrific draft strategy. Reaching for players because everyone else is doing it will guarantee you a couple things: seven-win seasons, a pissed-off fan base and not much else.

Don’t misunderstand — I’m not Kevin Colbert’s PR dude. I’ve been whinging about the o-line as long as the rest of you. But I’m willing to concede that building a roster is about trade-offs. You can’t have Pro Bowlers at every position, and top-of-the-line backups behind them.

Ted has been beating this drum since April — and FW mentioned it in the comments today — but Thad Gibson was a fourth-round luxury pick given all the depth at outside linebacker. And FW even pointed out that Raiders rookie third-round tackle Jared Veldheer has blown everybody  away this season as a starter. Fine. But Pittsburgh did take a center in the first round, and the 2010 class — Gibson or not — looks like one of Colbert’s best draft hauls.

And let’s be honest: nobody knew that Veldheer would be as good as he’s been. Just like nobody expected Mike Wallace to bust out a year ago — that’s why they were taken in the third round. My point: even if Pittsburgh had taken Veldheer over, say, Manny Sanders, they would still be in the same position they currently find themselves: thin along the o-line with an unproven player taking over (but with worse special teams and less depth at wide receiver). Instead of Veldheer, it’s Jonathan Scott. Much maligned when he was signed this summer, but here’s what JJ wrote after Scott’s performance against the Titans (and their third-ranked defense) in Week 2:

“I may have been hard on Scott when he was signed and during the preseason, but he deserves a medal for what he did Sunday. With Flozell Adams needing frequent breaks because of the heat, Scott slid back and forth from right tackle to left tackle and back again, which is a pretty difficult assignment. In the end, 16 of his 48 snaps were at right tackle while the rest were as the blindside protector. Scott did give up one sack that he shared with Chris Kemoeatu, and he was flagged for holding on a Mike Wallace touchdown pass. Those two plays will lead many fans to think Scott had an forgettable day, but overall his pass blocking wasn’t awful and his run blocking was actually pretty good — the screw-ups were notable but not numerous. Scott’s biggest problem continues to be maintaining a low base (sinking his butt) to keep from being driven into the backfield.”

Which isn’t much different than the status quo. It’s just that now the Steelers are running out of mediocre bodies to plug in along the offensive line. I’m guessing there are a lot of teams that would love to have Pittsburgh’s problems.

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  • Ted

    Ryan, in general, I agree with your assessment. You have need areas, but still need to get good value based on where you draft each round. Usually, the Steelers do not enter the draft with must needs. In the few cases when we did have an immediate need, we drafted Heath Miller in the first round, and traded up to be assured of getting Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes in the first round. Those picks were all fantastic.

    However, once again, the problem is that everyone reaches for OTs in this era. This means that if we do not follow suit, we place ourselves in a more difficult situation. Do you realize how unpredictable we will be in 2011 at OT. Starks will be coming back after a season-ending injury in a concerning area for long-term, Colon may or may not be back but will be coming off an injury that often takes 1.5 years to fully heal, J. Scott may be back but could command starter’s money in free agency if he plays well for us down the stretch, and Adams’ salary literally doubles to $5 million, none of which is guaranteed. None of these guys look like sure Steeler starters for 2011.

    Oh yeah, and we will probably add an OT in the first three rounds to the mix, and I guarantee we will have to reach somewhat for that player. Or we could just draft more OLBs because they represent the highest value on our draft board! Yes, I am still pissed about the Thad Gibson pick and join Ed in complaining about the Spaeth pick, who Arians actually argued for taking due to his abilities as a WR in the red zone. Instead, he has essentially been a No. 2 blocking TE who could not hold Walter Rasby’s jock in that area. It has only been this year that he has developed into a solid No. 2 blocking TE, who still lacks ideal bulk for such a role.

    • Cols714

      Who is Walter Rasby? And if Spaeth has been playing pretty well this year, who cares if he”lacks ideal bulk”? This isn’t the Mel Kiper show.

      • Ted

        Rasby was a great blocking tight end for the Steelers in 04. However, he was no threat as a pass catcher and lacked athleticism. Still, he was a nasty bad ass at in-line blocking. Finding guys like that to be No. 2 TEs is not that difficult, since we use two TE sets more than most franchises in the NFL. Spaeth has athleticism and pass-receiving skills. We just rarely use them.

  • Randy Steele

    When looking at this football team as a whole, let’s remind ourselves of this important rule of life one more time: You can’t have everything. This ain’t the New York Yankees, folks.

    Does the O-line suck? Of course. But that’s the sacrifice that’s been made so the Steelers can be exceptional elsewhere. Get used to it.

  • Randy Steele

    While I’m at it, one quick thought about the draft and loss of Thaddeus Gibson: Yes, you hate to see potentially good young talent get snatched by another team, but remember, this is the guy who couldn’t beat out Stevenson Sylvester for a hat.

  • Ted

    One more thing, Ryan, and J.J. can vouch for this. I have been pleading for us to use more premium picks on offensive and defensive linemen in recent years. Before the Spaeth pick, I wanted Marshal Yanda or Andy Alleman, who I was high on. Yanda would have ended up a much better pick and Alleman a much worse pick. However, both would have made more sense based on the Steelers’ needs and it’s not like Spaeth was considered a steal in the third round.

  • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

    Ted,

    I don’t disagree with the Yanda over Spaeth pick. In fact, I don’t think anybody would. All Steelers fans realize that the o-line is an annual issue. But like I wrote above and Randy points out below: assembling a roster is all about trade-offs.

    Reaching for players via the draft is a non-starter. The Steelers’ strategy this decade has been best available and they have won two Super Bowls. I invite you to go back through the drafts since, say, Big Ben’s arrival, and redraft better than Colbert & Co. And you have the benefit of hindsight. I posted a link above about how, despite all the gripes, since ’04 Pittsburgh couldn’t have done much better in the first three rounds of the draft than they did. And that post was specifically about stocking the roster with o-linemen.

    It would be nice to have a franchise LT and an above-replacement-level backup. But that would mean concessions elsewhere on the roster. I’ll take my chances with this team, even with Starks and Colon down.

    Planning a roster around the chances a team loses both starting tackles is a recipe for mediocrity.

  • Cols714

    I’ve never seen someone more POd about the drafts of a team that has won two super bowls and basically been in contention since 1992.

    And it’s so easy to just go and cherry pick players that you “wanted” them to draft after they took someone who ended up as a decent player like Spaeth or Essex but isn’t the superstar that you expect a team to draft in the 3rd or 4th rounds.

    • Ted

      Cols, of course it is easy to go back into every team’s draft and point out players that could have been better picks in hindsight. My problem is not with players Colbert took that did not pan out. Heck, at the time of their drafting, I actually called for the picks of Fred Gibson and Tony Hills, and had both Orien Harris and Ryan McBean as my No. 2 choices at the time they were picked.

      All four represented good value on draft boards and were at positions of need at the time we drafted them. In hindsight, none worked out for the Steelers. Of course, they were all fourth-round picks, and drafting the linemen became a necessity because, as par for the course, we ignored the trenches during the first three rounds of all those drafts.

      My problem is with when we take luxury picks like Spaeth or Worilds in the first three rounds while ignoring major need areas. We drafted both of those guys to be either (A) career back-ups, or (B) a back-up for several years. And remember that a new CBA will likely restore players’ being able to go UFA after four years.

      When we are the only team in the NFL that has not drafted an offensive tackle in the first two rounds over the past decade, then something is wrong. It is not surprising that our last premium OT selection (Marvel Smith in 2000) was also the last Steeler OT to make a Pro Bowl. This team should have won more than two Super Bowls had we placed a greater premium on the o-line instead of making sure we had the best two-deep depth at LB in the NFL.

      • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

        When you write things like “This team should have won more than two Super Bowls” it’s an indication that you’re spoiled as a fan. It’s a variation of “rich people’s problems.” I don’t know how the Steelers would have more than two Super Bowls since 2000 if they had drafted more offensive linemen early in the draft. Since 2004, I don’t even know who they would have taken.

        • Ted

          That is a good retort, Ryan. Yes, I am spoiled as a fan. All Steeler fans are or should be. It’s hard not to be since we are the winningest franchise in the NFL since the year of my birth (1972) in Super Bowl titles, conference championship games, and regular-seasons wins.

          When it comes to the Steelers, I have a sense of entitlement that has been present since my birth in Western Pa. I expect us to be good every year and a physical football team that never gets intimidated. And we have won much more than we have lost and are never soft. Unfortunately, in recent years, despite our overall success, I have also come to expect that our o-line will be the team weakness, in large part because we spend less premium draft picks on that area than any other franchise in the NFL.

  • GlennW

    Let’s look at the bright side here. We could have reached and blown a 3rd-round pick on OG Kraig Urbik, who scouted as a real road-grader with the potential flexibility to play RT for a team with major quality/depth issues at both those positions. Oops…

    • Steeler Stan

      This raises the issue that has me fuming in light of this development. I won’t quibble with the Steelers’ allocation of draft picks and resources to the o-line but instead with Tony Hills’ place on the roster. If Hills isn’t even in the discussion as an option to replace Starks they why the heck is he on the roster instead of Urbik, who has a place on the Bills’ roster, or Gibson, who was snapped right up off waivers. Its not like Hills is likely to develop into a starting left tackle any time soon.

      • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

        That’s a fair question, re: Urbik vs. Hills.

  • dennisonschili

    What is being missed in these arguments is that the Steelers haven’t always neglected the O line. Earlier in the decade the Steelers brass put a premium on linemen. Just a few short years ago our line consisted of 3-first rounders (Simmons, Faneca, Hartings), 1-second rounder (Smith), and 1-third rounder (Starks). So the neglect of the O line is a relatively newer situation and the lack of focus there over the past several years is impacting the team right now.

    Colbert is still in charge of personel, but maybe there was a change in position emphasis directed by Tomlin and possibly Lebeau? There is no question that Pouncey was the first move in the right direction in regards to the O line in several years and we need to continue to build there for the future. Adams was a great move for the short term but we might need to suppliment the draft with another top caliber player similar to Jeff Hartings who I think got picked up in free agency in his fifth year.

    • countertorque

      Just a point of clarifiation: Pittsburgh did not draft Hartings in the first round. There are other ways to build the o-line.

      • dennisonschili

        I don’t think anyone claimed they did..

  • RoB D

    Great job by everyone defending their positions. It’s one of the strengths of this site that we can have very strong opinions and yet we keep it civil. Good on us!

    That being said..we shoulda traded up to get Oher! (ducks and covers)

    I wish we had a better O-line but I really think you need to be drafting top 10 to get a sure fire tackle and unfortunately we have had buzzard’s luck at drafting guards in the lower rounds.

  • RoB D

    Is there anyway to find out if Hills is even in the discussion for LT? I really thought he would have a legit chance but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    It has been said before, this is all a result of the selected architecture for this team, following the great blue print of teams like the 90′s Bills and current Chargers and Colts, once that the Franchise QB is set, keep a good flow of skill players, and you will be a consistent winner if you accept and overcome your own impossed weakness. We chose to let the O-Line suffer. Fine. We chose to keep the swarming linebackers. Fine. If injuries take over and derail you, that’s sad, but because of your long term plan you are almos certain that next year, Franchise QB and Skill Players will make you competitive. Want to root for a great O-Line?…root for the Browns…enjoy…

    • dennisonschili

      Interesting comparison. Makes plenty of sense. But I will contend that you take a franchise quarterback and a great O-line and just about anyone can be turned into a good skill player. The browns o-line have created a monster out of Hillis and a decent QB out of Colt. Yes the Colts, Chargers, and Pats will always be competitive with their respective franchise QB’s, but there is no reason not to protect that said QB with a good O line.

      • JCRODRIGUEZ

        Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that we should not devote any resources for the O-line, what I am saying is that, as we saw on our last championship, the level of talent does not need to be superb, it only needs to be average, at best, and you still have a shot to compete. Again, taking Heath, Santonio, Mendenhall, Spaeth and the bunch or WRs over the last few drafts was done thinking about giving Big Ben enough weapons to have an elite attack, and have quality depth on those areas. Same goes for LB’s, the Franchise QB of the D is Troy, and the Skill players in our 3-4 system are the LB’s, so we are stacking that position over D-line and CBs. Again, you can not have them all. And I, personally, love this roadmap. As for the Browns, a monster O Line, a hell of a fullback and an ok QB will only make you competitive, if at all, that does not make you a contender.