Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?

“Draft an offensive lineman!”

That has been the Steelers fans’ springtime rallying cry for the last decade or so. And after the 2010 season, it hasn’t changed. Unlike year’s past, though, Pittsburgh had the makings of an above-average unit for the first time since 2005. But injuries — starting in preseason and continuing through the Super Bowl — squashed those plans.

Willie Colon, Max Starks and Maurkice Pouncey gave way to Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott and Doug Legursky. And while there were rough patches, the replacements were … adequate. Which, all things considered, is probably more than you could ask for.

Assuming Colon and Starks return in 2011 (and assuming there will be an NFL season), the Steelers will be in the market for a starting guard to join Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu, right? For shiggles, let’s say the team re-signs Scott (the guy was a lightning rod for most of the season, but he held it together during the stretch run; that’s worth something, I’d think), and Flozell returns, too. Should the organization’s first priority
be to find a right guard? Put differently: would that have been the difference in the Steelers’ losses last season?

Historically, one of the knocks on the o-line was its inability to keep Big Ben upright. Turns out, Roethlisberger’s knack for extending plays — and taking a few hits while doing so — had a lot to do with the unit’s overall success. Ironical, yes.

But here’s the thing: the combination of a mediocre group of five fat guys in front of a scramblin’, tough franchise quarterback mitigates the need for a top-flight offensive lineman, right?

Maybe.

Glass half full: the Steelers’ o-line improved over the course of the season and had its best game in the Super Bowl. That’s pretty much how you draw it up heading into training camp: get better each week and play your best when it counts most.

Glass half empty: Despite Ben’s elusiveness, the hits add up. (See the rearranged nose, the frankenboot and various other ailments we don’t even know about.) Roethlisberger isn’t a rhythm quarterback, at least in the sense that the ball regularly comes out when he is at the top of his 3-, 5- or 7-step drop. But it’s hard to argue that having a more competent group in front of Ben won’t keep him safer.

*******

The Steelers selected Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th overall pick last spring, he immediately moved into the starting lineup and stayed there right up until he was injured in the AFC Championship game. Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl and was Pittsburgh’s best o-lineman. He was a huge upgrade over Justin Hartwig and Sean Mahan, but the offensive line didn’t implode when Legursky replaced Pouncey in the Super Bowl. Just the opposite.

Football Outsiders’ Ben Muth after the game:

But this column isn’t about the Packers, it’s about the Steelers offensive line. I thought they played great football. They played against one of the best defenses in the NFL and gave up one coverage sack. They averaged 5.5 yards a carry on the ground. If someone would have released a photo journal of me watching the Super Bowl (which is a guaranteed best seller) it would be called Shock and Awe. I was shocked they played so well, and a little in awe of how a much maligned and hurting group pulled together for an incredible performance.

It’s difficult to dream up a scenario that includes the words, “[Pittsburgh's] worst unit, their offensive line, played [its] best game” only to find out that the Steelers lost. Considered separately, an average defensive effort, or an off-night from the franchise quarterback and you might still expect a Pittsburgh victory. But against the Packers, the NFL’s second-best defense, the Steelers offensive line, a punch line all season, had its best game. A lot of the credit should go to Sean Kugler, who has a strong case for team MVP.

Look, we’re talking about a rag-tag bunch; you can always make a case for why Pittsburgh should take an offensive lineman with first-round pick. But given how well Kugler coached these guys up, and that Starks and Colon will return in the summer (hey, consider them two high-round selections if that makes you feel better), maybe the Steelers, at the margins and with limited resources, would be better off using the 31st pick on a cornerback.

*******

The thought first crossed my mind after reading GlennW’s comment in last week’s discussion thread. It basically boils down to this:

I’m coming around to the notion that we need to draft a CB in the first round if that special player is available. When you look at where we’ve failed against the best of the best (Patriots, Packers, even the Jets to an extent) as opposed to versus our division rivals or the run-of-the-mills from the rest of the league, it’s the total inability to decently defend the pass even with some upfront pressure on the QB. I re-watched the Super Bowl, and McFadden was just awful lined up against the immortal Jordy Nelson, twisted and turned every which way. I think McFadden is hopeless, and that down the stretch our pass defense was actually better (but not by much) when McFadden was injured and totally out of the equation with Gay replacing him outside, even if we lost depth in the nickel/dime.

As much as it pains me, I can’t disagree about B-Mac. Most of his 2010 season went something like this: a) leave game after the first series because of the nagging hip pointer injury, b) return and get toasted for the rest of the afternoon.

When the Steelers traded for B-Mac last offseason, he admitted that his one-year stint in Arizona had been marred by injuries. And maybe that’s what happened in 2010, too. Whatever: injuries or incompetence, it doesn’t matter. When McFadden played, he wasn’t good. When he was out, William Gay moved to cornerback, which meant that Anthony Madison played nickel and (deep breath) Keenan Lewis played dime.

The lack of depth at cornerback is a much bigger problem than the o-line woes. Kugler found enough duct-tape to hold the offensive line together, and Big Ben did the rest. For Dick LeBeau, subpar cornerbacks (outside of Ike, another priority re-signing) meant that he had to be more conservative with Troy Polamalu.

After the Super Bowl, one of the Dallas Morning News writers suggested that Polamalu’s Defensive Player of the Year Award was “tarnished” because Troy was a no-show for most of the playoffs. Maybe he was injured. Or perhaps, as Dale Lolley speculated last week, Troy wasn’t his usual effective self by necessity:

…It’s my feeling the Steelers were so concerned with their corners outside of Ike Taylor that they felt they had to keep Polamalu deep to protect from being beaten over the top.

We saw Ryan Clark down in the box at times, but he doesn’t have anywhere near Polamalu’s speed. I believe they felt with McFadden hobbled, that exposed them to the deep ball with McFadden, William Gay and Anthony Madison, particularly with Clark as the only deep safety. It drives home the fact that this team needs to upgrade its speed in the secondary.

And then there’s this, from NFL Network’s Albert Breer:

[O]n the Steelers’ 55 defensive snaps in Super Bowl XLV, safety Troy Polamalu lined up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap just three times, an enormously low number for a player who’s at his best when he’s all over the place.

Pittsburgh’s contention all week was that the Packers’ spread wouldn’t faze its defense, but the way the players were deployed indicates something else entirely. The Steelers went to more single-safety looks with three and four corners on the field to contend with Green Bay’s receivers, at times taking Ryan Clark off the field and having Polamalu take on some of his ‘center fielder’ responsibilities.

Breer’s comments go back to what GlennW wrote above (and something most fans have been lamenting all season): LeBeau’s defensive philosophy works against 90 percent of the offenses, but the ones that give the Steelers the most trouble — the Pats, Saints, Packers — routinely make the playoffs.

If history is any guide, who the Steelers select 31st overall will come down to three words: best player available. It’s a rough outline for how the organization builds its roster, and for the most part, it has been a successful strategy.

ProFootballFocus.com notes that Kemoeatu was dreadful in 2010, which means that the Steelers could realistically be in the market for two starting interior linemen. The counterargument is that the return of Colon and Starks should mean more stability across the unit, lessening Kemoeatu’s ineffectiveness.

But there is no help on the way for the secondary. Ike Taylor is a top-flight cornerback, but that’s it. B-Mac’s best days appear to be in the rearview, and we have seen what happens when Gay starts. Madison is on the roster for his special-teams prowess and I’m fine if the only time he sees the field are in special-teams situations. Lewis, in a word, has been disappointing. In a perfect world, Pittsburgh would have a legit NFL corner opposite Taylor, and have B-Mac and Gay (another free agent) play in the sub packages.

It comes down to this: can the Steelers compete with their current secondary setup? Yep. They managed it last season and the two seasons prior to that, too (the primary difference: Deshea Townsend was the nickel back until this year). Can the Steelers win consistently against the league’s most dangerous offenses, offenses that feature quick passing and defensive game plans that require bump-and-run man coverage? Nope.

Either way (and depending on how things play out in front of them), the Steelers can’t go far wrong by taking the best offensive lineman or cornerback available with the 31st selection. (If you’re interested, CBS’ Rob Rang has Pittsburgh taking guard Danny Watkins, and CBS’ Chad Reuter thinks it will be tackle Derek Sherrod.)

Then again, what do I know. Leading up to the 2004 draft, I thought that the Steelers should take a cornerback over a quarterback. (DeAngelo Hall … can you imagine how that train wreck would have played out?), And I wasn’t thrilled with the Lawrence Timmons selection in 2007. A year later, nobody thought Rashard Mendenhall would be around when Pittsburgh went on the clock. Ben, Juan and Humpy have all had big roles in the organization’s success, which only goes to reinforce what we already knew: there’s a reason nobody asks me for personnel advice. So don’t be surprised if the Steelers take another linebacker*.

* joke … I think

This entry was posted in Draft, Offseason and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • GlennW

    I take a bit of issue with Ben Muth’s gushing over our O-line’s “best game of the season”, etc. As a percentage of productive plays, perhaps this was true– the O-line protected well for the most part, and the running game was also generally effective. Unfortunately two complete, sudden breakdowns on each side of the line resulted in two huge turnovers (the “sudden” collapse being the key to each turnover), and those turnovers more than anything cost us the game. So, the O-line’s performance was sort of an “other than that, how did you enjoy the play Mrs. Lincoln?”-type deal. We still need help here.

    I’m still voting CB as the top priority, though. The next Devin McCourty– i.e. a quality player who isn’t at the top of the charts and might actually be available at #31– would be just fine by me. Kevin Colbert has also identified CB as a position of depth in this draft (I’ll take his word for this as I am certainly not a draft junkie), so such a selection might even be realistic this year.

    • Cobra

      It’s the OCs responsibility to know if their players are able physically to execute the play as designed. As Muth correctly diagnosed, it’s asking a lot for a Center to pull on a power play and kick out the 5-technique DE. It was simply a terrible play call in that situation.

      It’s the same as the debacle in the Jets regular season game. The play call is asking for Scott to execute a reach block against Jason Taylor on the backside of the play. Arians should have known better, but instead it was an epic fail in not knowing the limitations of your players. Another terrible call in a crucial situationl

      • GlennW

        That might explain the play on which Mendenhall fumbled, especially with Essex on the field. The pick-six was just Kemo getting blown up, straight-up man-to-man, after he seemed to have established good initial position with his man locked up. I also understand that these things will happen over 70-80 offensive plays in a game, and sometimes the blown execution just coincides with a play call (here a long pass attempt) that can produce the worst possible outcome.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Bigger Draft Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or Offensive Line? | Steelers Lounge -- Topsy.com

  • Anonymous

    My son still gives me grief about the 2004 Draft because when the Texans took Dunta Robinson with the pick just before the Steelers I said “Oh, that was the guy they really needed!”

  • Cols714

    I’m of the mind that the OL is OK. The tackles are fine, they could use two new guards, but they really need a DB. For once all of the national publications that seemingly have the Steelers taking a DB in the first round every year will probably be correct.

    My question is, can they find at least one guard in FA? I know that Mankins is out of their price range, but is there a slightly above average guy they could sign?

    As far as DB goes, I’m OK with a safety or a CB.

  • Cols714

    I’m also pointing out that Donte Whitner is a FA this year. I’d love to have him on the team for depth.

  • DC in ATL

    The chances of us finding a player with the 31st pick who will beat out an incumbent starter and immediately solve our Offensive Line or Secondary issues is unlikely. I do think a high pick for both positions is warranted, but I wouldn’t expect that player to make a significant impact until the 2012 season.

    Timmons, Mendenhall, Ziggy and even Troy didn’t do much their first year. Heath and Santonio were not doing much on offense until the latter part of their rookie years (like Sanders and Brown this year).

    Pouncey and Roethlisberger are exceptions, but most of our first round picks needed some time to get on the field in their rookie years (and Pouncey and Big Ben were drafted with 18th and 11th pick, not 31st). Neither was expected to step in and start at the beginning of their respective training camps, but circumstances (and talent changed that).

    That’s not to say we can’t find someone like that in the draft this year. We have age and talent issues in our Secondary which I think will dictate a first or second round pick there. Although it runs counter to our normal way of doing things, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Steelers sign a 26-28 year old free agent who had been a starter somewhere else, and due to circumstances is available for a decent price and is a fit for our system. See the Ryan Clark signing from a few years ago. Donter Whitner is in that age group and could be a possibility.

    • Anonymous

      Rookies have a tough time especially starting in a Dick LeBeau defense. OG or OT is much more rookie-friendly, because protection schemes aren’t nearly as complex or differentiated from college to the pros as coverages.

      If we want immediate impact, OG is the way to go.

      That being said, we really need to get younger on defense. Both Ike and Troy, our best DBs, are 30+ next season. The core of our front 7 excepting Juan Timmons are all 30+ already.

      • Cols714

        I agree, however since they just drafted a center, I’m doubtful they are going OL in the 1st round. DB all the way,

      • Cobra

        You need to ask yourself is LeBeau’s scheme more difficult to learn than Caper’s in GB? I think not, and it’s interesting that the Pack started 5 first or second year players on defense. Keep in mind Capers was the DC for Pittsburgh while LeBeau was the defensive backs coach. Similarities?…….

        • Cols714

          Rookies don’t start for the defense because it’s hard to move into a lineup that has as many good players as the Steelers’.

          • GlennW

            But that’s not necessarily true of our secondary (which is also where the Packers had to plug in players). I could see a pure cover CB or nickel/dime DB making an immediate contribution if he’s talented enough (e.g. Devin McCourty). Free safety? Yeah, that’s a position of more knowledge responsibilty, where it’s tougher to make an impact. But on a team with McFadden/Gay as one of the starting CBs, I wouldn’t rule anything out, even if only out of necessity.

        • Anonymous

          The GB defense was partially the result of injuries, i.e. Frank Zombo. Sam Shields was the only real rookie contributor in the backfield, and he mostly played press man because of his great physical skills (and his youth showed occasionally, see the Mike Wallace TD).

    • Cobra

      Stefen Wisniewski is as close to a day 1 starter as I’ve seen, Pair him up next to Pouncey and the interior of your line is set for the next 10 years

  • SteelerBill

    Wow…great question. I’m going to see DB….although allow me to sit the fence a little. I agree with earlier posts that a ‘shut down’ corner may not be available at 31. Although think about how much another playmaker in the secondary would help out Troy? Perhaps we think FA..although with the current state of affairs…

    Also, how much of what we saw with the OL is credited to ‘Freddy’ Kugler versus the gelling of the OL in general? I’m with Ryan in that I like the fact that Starks and Colon do return. Now granted they weren’t ‘great’ before, but they also didn’t play under Kugler….

    If we stay at 31 I’m thinking it will be tough to not go OL since again the ‘big play’ guy’s may not be available….I believe I had heard WR thrown out there in the 1st Round as well…..

    Cobra…welcome…

    • GlennW

      The O-line never established enough stability to “gel”, by any normal measure. We’ve been talking for years about the O-line eventually gelling– it never did, then we lost Colon and Starks, not to mention replaced Hartwig and Essex as starters, all in the same season. So, I’m inclined to give Kugler as much credit as anyone wants to grant him. Even if the standard for doing so is “the O-line situation wasn’t a disaster”.

  • Grw1960

    A very apt article; It mirrors many of my own thoughts. Two months ago I was high on the Steelers taking an OL player in the first round and that still could happen if OT Sherrod is still on the board and I really like Pouncey and G/T Watkins also.
    There are many Physically talented CBs in this draft.Though we know how that can go ,Choose carefully.
    Crezdon Butler, I have hopes he will pass Lewis this off season.
    I would not be surprised to see the Steelers take two DBs in the 2011 draft. The five I like the most are Jimmy Smith
    Aaron Williams
    Rahim Moore all bottom of 1st rounders.
    CB Curtis Marsh Utah St. currently listed around the 4th round. I see him as the lowest bottom of the 3d. And with a good combine may move up to the bottom of the 2nd or top of the 3d round.

  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    I totally agree that we need all the help that we could get at the secondary, way ahead of the O-line, the only thing is that I am not totally focused on a CB, we might as well get a Safety, it all depends, of course, who is the BPA. My logic is that, if available both at the 31st pick, I’d rather take the Top Rated Safety over the 4th better CB.

    I need to clarify that I do not follow College Football that much, but based on my initial Draft Surfing, the specific case is Rahim Moore, FS from UCLA, that seems to be the number one safety in the draft, if we can get the number one prospect on one given position, I think that we should pull the trigger, just like we did (and worked) before with Big Ben, Heath, Santonio and Pouncey.

  • Pingback: Steelers Draft-Day Trades: An Analysis | Steelers Lounge