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.