Destroyed by Ravens and Colon Out for the Year; What Options Do Steelers Now Have on O-Line?

It was difficult to fathom the Steelers would not use the offseason to improve an offensive line that ranked as the worst in the NFL last season per Pro Football Focus. But after some very questionable moves, Pittsburgh entered 2011 with a below-average offensive line that appeared no better on paper than the group that started the team’s two AFC playoff games last season.

Following a 35-7 physical domination by the Ravens in Sunday’s season-opener that was marred by atrocious Steelers’ offensive line play from start to finish, Pittsburgh fans assumed their line could not get any worse, right?

Wrong. Willie Colon, one of only two decent Pittsburgh starting offensive linemen, has reportedly been lost for the season due to a torn triceps suffered late against the Ravens.

Like everyone else on the offensive line, Colon had a horrendous performance against Baltimore. Colon’s report card included a false start, holding penalty, and missed assignment that almost got quarterback Ben Roethlisberger decapitated.

However, that marked Colon’s first regular-season action since 2009, a year when he was among the better right tackles in the NFL. Still, the Steelers’ decision to re-sign Colon to a 5-year, $29 million contract this offseason was highly suspect, because he was coming back from a torn Achilles (an injury where most NFL players never return to the same form), and the front office had seemingly never valued Colon as much as the coaching staff, because he is an undersized right tackle with no ability to play the left-side.

Colon Should Have Been at Guard
After re-signing Colon, my hope was that the Steelers would at least initially try him at right guard, a position where the Steelers have consistently had the worst starters in the NFL over much of the past decade, including three borderline NFL-level players who each started multiple games at right guard last season in Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Trai Essex.

At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, Colon is among the shortest starting tackles in the 21st Century NFL. By current NFL averages, he is actually short for a guard, a position where he was recruited to play by every other team that talked with his agent during free agency (including Chicago, which offered more money than Pittsburgh).

Such a move would have allowed the Steelers to keep Flozell Adams at right tackle and put Colon next to emerging star center Maurkice Pouncey. By doing so, the Steelers would have put three above-average offensive linemen and outstanding run blockers on the field together, side-by-side for the first time since the Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings trio played LT, LG and C in helping Pittsburgh post a 15-1 record in the 2004 regular season and win the Super Bowl the following year due to dominating ground attacks that ranked second and fifth, respectively, in rushing yards per game those seasons.

Kids Listen Up: The Steelers Once Were Known for Great Offensive Lines
The Steelers seemingly always had a dominant run game under former coach Bill Cowher, in large part because they placed so much emphasis on the offensive line. Cowher’s teams ranked among the top 12 in the NFL in rushing offense in 14 of his 15 seasons at the helm, ranking in the top 10 for 13 of those seasons, and among the top four for eight of his 15 seasons.

But the Steelers’ stellar offensive line play and coinciding strong rushing attack (the two almost always go together) was really implemented by Cowher’s predecessor, Chuck Noll, a Hall of Famer and the primary architect of the Steelers’ dynasty of the 70s.

From Noll’s first season as head coach in Pittsburgh in 1969 through future Hall of Famer Faneca’s last year in Pittsburgh in 2007, the Steelers’ ranked among the top league’s top 18 rushing offenses for 38 of 39 seasons. From the start of the Steelers’ dynasty in 1972 through 2007, Pittsburgh’s rushing offenses ranked among the league’s top 10 for an amazing 28 of 36 seasons.

Only three times in the 42 previous seasons since Noll’s hiring in 1969 did the Steelers not rank among the league’s top 18 rushing offenses, and two of those occurred in the last three years. That precipitous fall is due to a flawed drafting strategy by Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert that devalues and usually ignores offensive linemen in the early rounds.

The Steelers’ went through seven consecutive drafts (2003-09) without taking an offensive lineman in the first two rounds, the longest such streak by any franchise this century. Even worse, they went an entire decade (2001-2010) without drafting an offensive tackle prospect in the first two rounds, even though teams now have to draft tackles earlier than desired due to the emphasis placed on that position by seemingly every franchise but the Steelers.

Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl in 2008, although they did so with the worst statistical offensive line of any Super Bowl championship team. They also made it back last year to the big game with the worst line in the NFL.

But the Steelers’ successes since 2008 have been primarily due to the NFL’s best defense (which looked very old against the Ravens and can no longer be counted on to carry the team), tremendous coaching, and a franchise quarterback in Roethlisberger, whose career is going to be cut short and who will never live up to his full potential due to annually playing behind an abysmal offensive line.

In other words, the team has won despite its offensive line, but would have won a lot more had emphasis been placed on the trenches instead of adding deep depth at linebacker through early-round picks such as Alonzo Jackson, Bruce Davis and Jason Worilds.

While he is an outstanding general manager and the best first-round drafter in the NFL, brushing aside Colbert’s abysmal record of assembling talent on the offensive line due to the Steelers’ overall team success is akin to praising all students at a school that receives a high overall grade, including the worst overall classroom and the three worst students in the entire school. In short, there are few more ridiculous arguments from Steeler fans than, “well, we went to the Super Bowl with that offensive line, and with BMac and William Gay as two of our top corners, so we are fine at those spots.”

A Positive Change in Draft Strategy
Fortunately, Colbert seems to have finally learned from his past failures. In the first round of 2010, he drafted Pouncey, who was invited to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. In the second round of 2011, he made a risky pick of tackle Marcus Gilbert, a boom-bust type that the Steelers had to take at that spot due to future needs. Now, if Colbert would only learn from his refusal to draft cornerbacks in the first two rounds as well…

But unfortunately Colbert’s belated attempts to improve Pittsburgh’s disastrous offensive line through two picks in the last two drafts may not be enough to save the Steelers’ Super Bowl chances for this fall due to his failed offseason moves before 2011.

Adams, a late free-agent signing in 2010 who converted to right tackle after playing almost exclusively at left tackle during his stellar career with the Cowboys, literally saved the Steelers’ season in 2010 when he was easily the team’s second best offensive lineman, and played at a level near Colon’s 2009 performance and probably better than any other season Colon had with the Steelers.

But yet the Steelers’ again showed they do not care much about their offensive line by releasing Adams when he refused to take a paycut from the very reasonable $5 million he was slated to earn for 2011.

Adams would have taken a paycut if the Steelers had astutely promised him that he would open camp as the starting right tackle (which is what coach Mike Tomlin had repeatedly said all offseason) and Colon would be tried at guard. Adams and Colon were both clearly among the team’s top three offensive linemen, so why could the Steelers not at least try to play them together? And if Colon did not take well to guard or the 36-year-old Adams appeared washed up, the Steelers could have cut Adams and not owed him any money under the 2011 salary cap.

Colbert was wise to save more than $5 million in salary cap space by cutting veteran tackle Max Starks, who (unlike Adams) showed up to training camp badly overweight and was coming off a season-ending neck injury that could easily become career-ending from one wrong hit.

However, in releasing both Adams and Starks, the Steelers essentially handed their starting offensive tackle spots with no competition to Colon, who was coming off major injury and is a better physical fit for guard, and journeyman Jonathan Scott, who was re-signed for a paltry $800,000 base salary for 2011 to be the starting left tackle. I like Scott. He is a battler who may have played better than Colon on Sunday, although Terrell Suggs abused him for much of the game. But Scott is a not a starting-caliber NFL left tackle by any stretch.

Aaron Smith and not Flozell Adams Should Have Been Released to Save $
Do not believe any B.S. claims that the Steelers had to release Adams to get under the salary cap. A much better option would have been saving $4.5 million of Aaron Smith’s $6.1 million cap hit in 2011 by releasing him or probably saving near that amount or even more by adding another year (he wants to play through 2012) to his contract for essentially the same amount of money.

The loyal Smith, who has missed the second half of the season due to injuries in three of the last four years, would have likely taken that deal. If not, the team would have still been loaded at defensive end with Brett Keisel, and their last two first-round picks in Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.

Everyone loves Smith and he WAS arguably the best 3-4 defensive end of all-time. But he has been treated better by the Steelers’ front office than any player I can ever remember in franchise history. He was absurdly kept on the active roster all last year after tearing his triceps in week 7 even though players almost never return from that injury in the same season, particularly a then-34-year-old, injury-prone defensive lineman.

And while the team approached more than a half-dozen players this offseason about restructuring their deals to help get the Steelers’ under the salary cap, Smith – who all experts assumed was at the top of the list for the Steelers to ask to restructure and/or force to take a paycut – said that no one from the Pittsburgh front office or coaching staff ever mentioned this possibility to him, although that he would have been open to assisting the team if asked.

Further, this fall long-time Pittsburgh defensive line coach John Mitchell dismissed any suggestion that there was competition for the starting left defensive end spot, even though Hood shined as a starter in replace of Smith late last season. Unfortunately, the Baltimore game showed that Smith is nowhere near an elite player any longer and at this point should be given a Travis Kirschke-type role of seeing action in 15 plays per game behind the more talented, younger and stronger Hood.

While I am hoping he improves and stays healthy in the coming weeks, Smith has lost a great deal of functional strength in his upper body. He was literally pushed around all game by multiple Ravens and driven on his back by Marshal Yanda on a key goal-line play that resulted in a Ray Rice touchdown.

Baltimore Ravens: 2011 Offseason Winners of the AFC North
Give Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome credit for a tremendous offseason. His moves made the Ravens younger, faster, and he attempted to address the team’s weaknesses all the way up until late August when he signed former Pro Bowler Bryant McKinnie after his surprising release by the Vikings.

Much like the Cowboys did with Adams last season, Minnesota may have given up too soon on McKinne, who was dominant in helping Baltimore gash the Steelers for 170 yards on the ground. Adding McKinnie at left tackle enabled Baltimore to move Michael Oher to his more natural position at right tackle. More important, it also allowed Yanda to switch from right tackle to right guard.

At the same exact size of Colon at 6-3, 315 pounds, Yanda was too short to play tackle, but proved a dominant and athletic interior player who regularly opened inside rushing lanes against the Steelers. The Ravens made these moves even though they had re-signed Yanda to a 5-year, $32 million contract during the offseason, a contract similar to the one Colon signed with the Steelers.

As JJ can attest, Yanda is the player I was screaming for the Steelers to take in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft out of Iowa after he had slipped a little further than expected, but the Steelers instead opted for Matt Spaeth, even though they had two quality tight ends already under contract for the long-term.

In other words, Newsome’s offseason moves and history of drafting offensive linemen transformed the Ravens’ offensive line from a weakness in 2010 (although nowhere near as bad as the Steelers) into what appears to be a much-improved unit in 2011.

Colbert’s moves, in contrast, did not strengthen the Steelers’ annual Achilles heel (sorry Willie) and now the offensive line looks like Chernobyl following the loss of Colon, who almost assuredly would have started playing much better with additional games under his belt. Colbert obviously should not be blamed for Colon’s injury, since this had nothing to do with his Achilles tear and could have happened to any player.

What to Do Now?
This season is not over by any stretch and I expect Pittsburgh to regroup and be a playoff team, although Baltimore clearly looks like the class of the AFC North at this juncture. But more moves are needed just to keep the Steelers in the division hunt this year.

First, the Steelers need to beg Adams to sign and fly him in from Texas ASAP. Hopefully, he has not gained too much weight in the past month and the Steelers saved enough cap space to make him a decent offer that entices him to come back. If he is signed quickly, I see Adams possibly starting at right tackle by week No. 3 at Indianapolis or by week No. 4 at Houston by the latest.

Pittsburgh fortunately should have a relatively easy time Sunday against the hapless Seahawks. But keeping Roethlisberger upright against any opponent would be a concern this week, and the Steelers will have to quickly decide among three options to fill the two tackle spots against Seattle.

They could go with the experience route and again start Jonathan Scott at left tackle and instill the veteran swingman Essek at right tackle for at least one game. Or they could try the rookie Gilbert at right tackle against Seattle, which would preserve continuity with four starters remaining in place.

Gilbert’s development was hindered by a lack of offseason OTAs and then nagging injuries that sidelined him at the beginning of training camp, but he did play well over the final two preseason games. Most of Gilbert’s practice reps have been at left tackle, which is where he finished his college career at Florida. But starting a raw rookie to protect Roethlisberger’s blindside would be a risky move this week and one that goes against the tendencies of this Steelers’ coaching staff, who when in doubt generally prefer playing veterans like Essex.

Still, Scott is a more natural right tackle than left tackle, so putting the more athletic and longer Gilbert at left tackle and moving Scott over to right tackle this week may be the team’s best option. Sure Gilbert would have some growing pains, but he could be a quality left tackle by the end of the season. The same cannot be said for Scott, although his ceiling would be higher at right tackle or even right guard.

Right Guard Still the Steelers’ Biggest Weakness on the O-Line
As bad as Colon and Scott were against the Ravens, no player on the line was worse than Legursky at right guard.  He is a backup center who has no business starting at guard for any team.

While Colbert definitely deserves much blame for the Steelers’ current offensive line problems, the ever-changing debacle at right guard is more of a coaching failure. Foster started the team’s final 10 games at right guard last season and was serviceable (although still bad by NFL starter’s standards) after Essex was benched because he was not physical enough and Legsursky had too many problems with bigger defensive tackles.

But yet it was clear at the start of training camp that the Steelers wanted to replace Foster, who was timed at 5.61 seconds in the 40 coming out of Tennessee and thus may have been the slowest guard in the NFL in 2010.

For most of training camp and the preseason, the Steelers tried Chris Scott, a second-year player who never saw a regular-season snap in 2010, and backup left tackle Tony Hills at right guard.

Chris Scott fell out of favor and barely made the team as a ninth offensive lineman who is unlikely to dress on gamedays this fall barring major injuries. He fared better than Hills, who was cut outright and picked up by the Broncos.

Surprisingly, the Steelers named Legursky their starting right guard even though he saw very little action at that spot this fall and had much less experience at guard than Foster. It was shocking that they did this before facing the Ravens, who have the best defensive tackle in football in athletic, 6-4, 335-pounder Haloti Ngata.

Not surprisingly, the Ravens regularly lined up Ngata over Legursky, which was an abysmal mismatch for the Steelers. Although a cerebral player, it was also not shocking that a blown read by Legursky resulted in Ngata going unimpeded up the interior to destroy a handoff from Roethlsiberger that resulted in a Reshard Mendenhall fumble recovered by Baltimore early in the third quarter which broke the game open.

Currently, the Steelers only have two real options at right guard in Legursky or Foster. They may go with situational matchups and start Legursky against smaller, more athletic defensive fronts and Foster against bigger players. More than likely, though, Legursky keeps his starting job for at least a couple of more games, but I surely hope he is not at right guard in weeks 8 and 9 against the Patriots and Ravens.

By that point, I am hoping that Jonathan Scott moves all the way over from left tackle to right guard, where he could offer more athleticism than Foster, better height and reach than Legursky, and a nastiness not found in Essex. Starting left guard Chris Kemoteau has always been a better fit for right guard, but he has the most difficulty picking up reads on the offensive line and thus the Steelers’ coaches do not want to make him think more after a position move.

Thus, the Steelers’ offensive line could evolve as follows over the 2011 season:

Week 1: LT J. Scott, LG C. Kemoteau, C M. Pouncey, RG D. Legursky, RT W. Colon
Week 2: LT J. Scott, LG C. Kemoteau, C M. Pouncey, RG D. Legursky, RT T. Essex
Week 3: LT M. Gilbert, LG C. Kemoteau, C M. Pouncey, RG D. Legursky, RT J. Scott
Week 4. LT M. Gilbert, LG C. Kemoteau, C M. Pouncey, RG D. Legursky, RT F. Adams
Week 5: LT M. Gilbert, LG C. Kemoteau, C M. Pouncey, RG R. Foster, RT F. Adams

Week 8 for the Patriots game and through the rest of the season: LT M. Gilbert, LG C. Kemoteau, C M. Pouncey, RG J. Scott, RT F. Adams, 6th Essex, 7th Legursky, 8th Foster, 9th C. Scott

Regardless of who starts, this remains a talented, proven team that is nowhere near as bad or as flawed as exhibited on Sunday. Moreover, although Pittsburgh had a lousy offensive line last fall, that unit actually played fairly well against the Packers in the Super Bowl, and that was without an injured Pouncey and after losing their starting two tackles (Colon and Starks) to season-ending injuries earlier in the year.

The Steelers’ offensive line by the end of this fall could be much better due to the addition of Gilbert. But there are a lot of question marks and the team cannot afford any more injuries on the line.

But without significant improvement in the trenches, Roethlisberger will not physically stay healthy and the Steelers’ great run from 2004-10 will probably end, because 2012 already looks like a rebuilding year.

This entry was posted in 2011 steelers, AFC North, Free Agency, Front Office, Offensive Line, Offseason, Preseason. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Cols714

    I think you wrote this just for me. It’s like a “Ted’s Greatest Hits” post. You hit all of your favorites.You need some new material.

    • GlennW

      Well, at least Ted proposes fixes, however unpalatable the various choices may be (when a 35-year-old inactive like Flozell Adams is your potential savior, you’ve got problems).  The hindsight stuff aside (some of which has merit albeit while beaten to death– the Steelers certainly have ignored the O-line for far too long in favor of some more marginal needs), currently we’re undeniably in a big mess at O-line.  I really don’t mind these kind of “cold hard truth” articles.  I for one do not come SteelersLounge for homerific cheerleading.

      On a related note, in the month leading up to the season, I recall a lot of chortling over the moves the Ravens had made, specifically around their O-line including the McKinnie pickup.  Not so funny now.  In fact it looks like we should have been considering such pickups of talented-but-with-question-marks linemen (a la Flozell last season), as opposed to attempting to recycle the same group of known retreads.

      • Cols714

        OK. But do we really need to rehash every bad move the Steelers have made over the last decade every time they lose? How many message boards are filled up with the same old crap. Alonzo Jackson, Bruce Davis, Colon to guard, etc? Reading stuff like this makes me pound my head because it makes the Steelers out to be the Browns or some other awful team when in reality they have been on of the best teams in the league for the last 20 years.

        Does that make them perfect? Nope. But give me some original criticism instead of Alonzo Jackson , Bruce Davis, etc. over and over and over again.

        • GlennW

          I agree that some of this and other posts is repetitive and over-the-top.  I guess I just choose to break out my Ted-filter on that stuff (Alonzo who? never heard of the guy) and take what I can from the remainder of the content focusing on the here-and-now.  Example: cut bait on Aaron Smith and re-sign Flozell Adams.  Something I’d not thought of and seemingly heresy, but actually sensible enough to warrant consideration.

        • Anonymous

          The Colon to guard stuff might be a little tired. And yeah we’ve heard the criticisms of the draft picks before. But in this case that discussion was a couple of sentences setting up a pretty good point about recognizing where a good drafter’s flaws are. If his only audience were people who’ve read all the previous stuff on the site, leaving some of that repetition out would be good, but that’s not thew whole audience. Also, I didn’t see a single mention of Santonio Homes, which surely would have been in a post tailored for you, Cols.

          Ted, there are a few observations I want to make about your writing. Please take these in the constructive spirit in which they are intended. First, you consistently write in positive assured statements. I suspect you don’t want to sound wishy-washy or hide your opinion behind seven layers of “I think” and “Maybe could be in my opinion if.” That’s laudable, but you very often come across as pedagogic and sometimes even as arrogant. I doubt that’s what you intend. It might serve you well to alter your tone to suit your own level of confidence on what you are writing. You can’t bee 100% sure of everything you say, and it’s okay to let your readers see what uncertainties you have and how strong they are topic by topic.

          • ted

            Excellent critiques, Intropy. In many cases, I am not not certain and thus do not that want to come across as such. However, I work with many young writers and students, and have always taught that there is no reason to say or write “I think” or “It is my opinion” in a speech or column. That is already assumed, right? However, your point is well-taken, so maybe a better approach could be something along the lines of issuing disclaimers or the other possibility when I am uncertain. For example, I could have wrote, “While there is no definitive proof that Colon could indeed play well at guard…” However, when I am very confident in a point, there is no reason to write “in my opinion,” since this is a blog and not a newspaper. Thus, I should say “Flozell Adams was clearly the Steelers’ second best offensive linemen in 2010,” and everyone knows that is my opinion. To be blunt, though, it was also the opinion of almost everyone who watched the 2010  Steelers.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UR6KXGPFIFYZSVJNCXCJNHDQJQ Bob Costas

            To be honest, I think the main problem is that you come off as incredibly arrogant.  A great deal of your writing is based upon declarative statements that you have no evidence for and could not possibly prove – usually directly stating or implying how you are smarter than the entire Steelers front office.  My background is in scientific writing and I’m wired to look for claims that aren’t supported by facts.  Since those occur with a high frequency in your writing, it is the literary equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for me.

          • ted

            Excellent critiques, Intropy. In many cases, I am not not certain and thus do not that want to come across as such. However, I work with many young writers and students, and have always taught that there is no reason to say or write “I think” or “It is my opinion” in a speech or column. That is already assumed, right? However, your point is well-taken, so maybe a better approach could be something along the lines of issuing disclaimers or the other possibility when I am uncertain. For example, I could have wrote, “While there is no definitive proof that Colon could indeed play well at guard…” However, when I am very confident in a point, there is no reason to write “in my opinion,” since this is a blog and not a newspaper. Thus, I should say “Flozell Adams was clearly the Steelers’ second best offensive linemen in 2010,” and everyone knows that is my opinion. To be blunt, though, it was also the opinion of almost everyone who watched the 2010  Steelers.

          • ted

            One more point, you were absolutely correct in pointing out “a good drafter’s flaws.” I try to offer this disclaimer almost every time I critique one of his decisions, but Colbert is arguably the best GM in the business, an excellent drafter, and has had phenomenally consistent first-round success due to an outstanding first-round philosophy of usually taking the BPA at a position of short or long-term need, young players with upside, and mostly guys who were proven college players at major programs.

            I love having him as our GM. However, he has flaws as a drafter, and the main two are obviously not placing much emphasis on the offensive line (obvious by his picks for a decade, but seemingly and hopefully changing) and still trying to find the next Ike Taylor in the mid-rounds at CB, a strategy that has not worked out since Taylor. Moreover, he does not always take the BPA. Really the only time he reaches for a player who does not fill a short- or long-term need is at OLB, where he seemingly falls in love with half the prospects on the board. And I think it is blind homerism to never critique those in charge, even when their rate of successful decisions usually surpasses their mistakes.

            But we all have flaws. Colbert is way better drafter than the over-rated Belichick, who has a much higher bust rate, tends to pass up on taking impact performers who could contribute immediately to stockpile 2nd-4th-round picks, and then ends up cutting a lot of those players too soon, because he ends up with a lot of average players fighting for roster spots. Take away Brady, the o-line and CBs, and the Patriots do not have one player I envy, and are significantly weaker than us at most positions (LB, S, WR, RB).

            As someone who follows the draft religiously, I have always placed too much value on d-line picks, which is why I was elated with the Hood and Heyward picks even though they went against my other flaw of often wanting to reach for need over BPA. At the same time, I was doing cartwheels when we traded up for Jeremy Staat and (gulp) expressed concern that we traded too much to move up to take Troy Polamalu, since even though I liked him a lot as a prospect and we had a huge need at that spot, I thought taking a safety at 16 was too high and was willing to risk only trading up to 20 or so and hopeing he fell that far. I could not have been more wrong on both.

        • ted

          When trying to explain our current mess on the o-line, you cannot objectively do so without pointing our unwillingness to draft any offensive tackles in the first two rounds from 2001-10, a decade when we had a few reaches for deep depth at LB, none of whom seemingly had a clear path to a starting job (barring injury) for at least three years, and thus made no sense to draft in the first three rounds.

          • Cols714

            How about just say that the Steelers haven’t drafted many OL in recent years? It’s one line, then when you get to the decent “what to do now” part of the post I’m still reading.

            Please please please just write one post without saying the words “Alonzo Jackson” “Bruce Davis” “Colon to guard”

            I’m begging.

      • Cols714

        And to be fair, the What to Do Now? section is actually pretty good, but I have to read the mind numbing list of past Steelers draft failures before getting to that part.

  • Hiddenaway

    Great article Ted, couldn’t agree more.  But I doubt the Steelers coaching staff will make that many changes along the Oline this year.  They tend to want to keep guys where they are once they get started, unless their is a major injury.  I think J. Scott stays at LT for the year, unless maybe they move him to RT and put Gilbert on the blind side.  According to Dulac, it is “doubtful” Adams is going to resign with the Steelers, which means they are going to stick with the steaming pile of crap that they have now.   Essex or Gilbert will start at RT this week.  The risk with Essex is that if he gets hurt, Legursky is the only backup C.  Maybe they will bench Legs this week though and give Foster back his job from last year.  Legursky did nothing to keep his job last week that’s for sure. 

    It is depressing having to watch this piss poor oline year in and year out, with no obvious moves made to fix it.  The Steelers loyalty towards their old vet players may be starting to catch up with them.

    • Cols714

      Yeah it’s so depressing watching your team get to the Super Bowl every other year. What a terrible front office, it has no idea how to build a team. If we’d just put Ted in charge, then all of our troubles will be solved.

      • Hiddenaway

        Cols, who said anything about depressing watching the Steelers?  I said “this piss poor oline”.  While you don’t have to agree with Ted (I don’t entirely), I don’t see why that means every fan has no right to ever question the strategy of the Front Office, simply b/c they have been successful in recent years.  No matter how you slice it, this Offensive Line is not good, hasn’t been good in years, and the Steelers have won in spite of them not because of them.  How many sacks does Big Ben have to take?  How many stat analytics sites like ProFootballFocus have to rate them as the worst offensive line in football for it to be realized as a problem?  How bad would the Steelers be if Ben wasn’t a sandlot QB and had to stand in that collapsing pocket every time? 

        Colbert is clearly starting to address the problem by drafting OL in the top two rounds of the last two drafts. But I agree with Ted that you should work to get the best players on the field, and that means sacrificing the salaries of some of the older, injury-prone players. They love to resign their won, but the late round talent that they have now (Foster, Essex, Kemo, Legursky, C. Scott) are not exactly diamonds in the rough.  I don’t need five probowlers, how about just a middle of the road offensive line? We’ll see if this defense and Big Ben can get us back to the big dance with this oline yet another year, but I have my doubts. 

      • ted

        This type of predictable and provincial response is exactly why I wrote, “While he is an outstanding general manager and the best first-round
        drafter in the NFL, brushing aside Colbert’s abysmal record of
        assembling talent on the offensive line due to the Steelers’ overall
        team success is akin to praising all students at a school that receives
        a high overall grade, including the worst overall classroom and the
        three worst students in the entire school. In short, there are few more
        ridiculous arguments from Steeler fans than, “well, we went to the
        Super Bowl with that offensive line, and with BMac and William Gay as two of our top corners, so we are fine at those spots.”

    • Anonymous

      We know the line is bad. And we know it just got worse by losing its second best player. But they are not as bad as they played in week one. They’ll shuffle someone in and be worse than they were before the injury. We’ll suffer through it all again this season like last season. If Gilbert has the right stuff it would be huge for the team at this point, but I think they’ll muddle through with generally poor play that suffices just barely.

      • ted

         Agree with this sentiment, but some teams (Ravens, Pats, etc.) are going to be able exploit this o-line even more than years past, and we are still going to have tons of problems against teams with efficient and accurate QBs who spread the field and get protection.

        The Ravens’ rushing success was an abberation. No team will gash us like that again all year, including the Ravens. But if our pass rush does not improve significantly from that game (meaning Harrison gets healthy), we are going to be even more vulnerable against good QBs, because our No. 2 and No. 3 CBs cannot cover anyone. Flacco probably completes every pass he throws on Sunday if he does not challenge Ike Taylor a few times. Although he had that stupid post-play penalty, Taylor did not yield a reception all game in single coverage, even though he was usually matched up in press, man-coverage against Evans. I cannot even think where our defense would be without Taylor, but I can only dream of how good it would be with just a decent No. 2 corner opposite him, such as Carlos Rogers or Richard Marshall, who could have been landed in FA if we had just caught BMac. Then again, Marshall did not play well Sunday and Ray Rice might still be running if Rogers was at No. 2 CB on Sunday, because Rogers cannot tackle and McFadden had to make a lot of stops downfield.

        • Anonymous

          Tomlin spoke about the pass rush in his presser. He noted that the the defense getting chewed up on the ground forced attention that way that could otherwise have been spent getting after Flacco. That sounds like a reasonable analysis from what I saw; Flacco had a lot of time to get off throws, but it at least didn’t seem to be a totally clean pocket where the rushers are all getting stoned. Maybe, hopefully, a little more numbers pressure pops the soap bubble. If you’re right about the run defense being aberrant Sunday, then that improvement should cascade to the pass rush. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that performance in one area is tightly coupled with performance in other areas.

  • DJAnyReason

    Gotta agree with cols here… there’s quite an impressive winge-per-inch rate in this post

    • GlennW

      Good to hear from you DJ.  But likewise haven’t you hammered on Colbert/Tomlin for years for ignoring or whiffing on O-line in the draft (pre-Pouncey at least)?  In particular I remember apoplexy over the decision to trade down and draft Kraig Urbik, and you were absolutely correct about that.

      Again, I don’t mind criticism of mistakes, if it’s analytically based.  It doesn’t mean that you’re not a fan.  It doesn’t mean that you think you could do a better job.  It doesn’t mean that you’re giving an overall grade of “F”.  It just means that in the absence of perfection you’re looking at all the component decisions and at least trying to be objective about them.

      • DJAnyReason

        For a long time I thought ignoring the o-line was a huge mistake.  Results have softened my stance on that issue.  I think the Steelers largely botched the ’08 draft, but they came out of it with Mike Wallace, so I really can’t complain too much.  Other than that, in retrospect I don’t have much issue with the overall draft strategy anymore.  Maybe I’d like to see some efforts in FA to shore up some weaknesses, but, again, results have persuaded me.

        That said, my main agreeance-with-cols/noting-winge-density point is less to do with the issue of the Steelers’ roster strategy and more to do with stuff like “Roethlisberger, whose career is going to be cut short and who will never
        live up to his full potential due to annually playing behind an abysmal
        offensive line.”  I mean, I come to this site because I generally enjoy the writing, but stuff like that makes me immediately give up.  Literally.  I got that far in this post and quit.

        • countertorque

          The world is kind of a different place with DJAnyReason agreeing with Colbert’s draft strategy.

  • Anonymous

    I liked content of this post, thought-provoking at least and we should all be willing to think about  (second guess) our team’s decisions…that’s half the fun of being a fan.  It would seem that our offensive strategy is to get by on the line and get “weapons” in WR, RB and QB.  All well and good but we should also be willing to continually re-assess this strategy and be willing to adapt to changing circumstances (like perhaps uni-brow being able to play).

    I’m not jumping off any cliffs after week 1.  I think it was a aberration.  That said, while we should not freak at the first sign of trouble we similarly shouldn’t ignore signs of diminishing returns in our current plan.

  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    Wow…just…wow…”That precipitous fall is due to a flawed drafting strategy by Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert”…”2012 rebuilding year”…calls for ”Steeler Football” and that 3 yards and a cloud of dust offensive strategy that yielded so many wonderful results in the 90′s…

    If last year was the year of the laughable “We Are One Willie Colon Away From World Domination” campaign, this year is now “We Were One Willie Colon Injury Away from Eternal Doom – DOOM!!!”.

    Terrible and very predictable rant. 

    • ted

      JC, put Roethlisberger on the 90s teams, and O’Donnell and Kordell from 04 to today, and I think we win Super Bowl titles in 95, 97 and 01, make the Super Bowl in 94, and do not have a tremendous fall-off for 3 years (98-00) where we fail to reach the postseason. Moreover, Ben’s career would have been an extra 2-3 years longer due to superior offensive line protection, meaning that he could have played well into 04 and 05, and we probably win both world titles with a seasoned Roethlisberger behind a solid offensive line. While we would have still been very good since 04 with O’Donnell and Slash at QB, there is no way we ever make it through the AFC playoffs in this era with either as our starting QB. They simply did not make clutch plays to win big games in the playoffs, a key facet where Ben has probably surpassed Brady as the best QB in the game.

      Over the past decade or so, we have had a much better DL and better WRs than the 90s, but that decade featured a far better o-line. Still, the two eras are remarkably similar in many areas. The main difference is that we now have a franchise, clutch QB, and without him we do not win or even go to a Super Bowl this decade. But we are almost an unbeatable football team when Roethlisberger has strong protection and an effecient rushing attack. In conrast, he is not Brady, Manning, Brees, and Rogers and thus struggles to carry the team when passing the 40 times, usually under heavy pressure.

  • http://ThePublicProfessor.com The Public Professor

    Outstanding article.  Depressing as hell, but excellent writing and research.  Now I’m gonna go take two Vitamin-I and try to sleep it off.  Maybe by the time I wake up Tunch Ilkin will have come down from the booth and grabbed this thing by the horns.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe the fault doesn’t lie in an unwillingness to draft offensive linemen. Maybe the problem is an inability to get a reliable read from scouting. If that’s the case, then free agency seems like the way to go, even if you’re picking up average journeymen on the cheap, that would be better than burning draft picks and getting little in return.

    • GlennW

      I’d be content with any of the alternatives, not just the draft.  But we know that the Steelers are only dragged kicking and screaming into the free agent or trade markets (even when desperate), and a Flozell Adams (who we were pretty happy with) is about the best that they’re ever going to come back with (while Mahan, Hartwig et al were disasters).  In general the Steelers’ philosophy of continuity over the quick fix makes sense, but in the case of this undertalented offensive line, said “continuity” only equals consistent mediocrity (I’m being generous).  Maybe evaluation of offensive linemen just isn’t a strong suit (e.g. the wasted Urbik pick), but more likely it’s just the commonly assumed under-prioritization at the position (supported by the exception to the rule: draft high with Pouncey, get a winner).

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UR6KXGPFIFYZSVJNCXCJNHDQJQ Bob Costas

        Perhaps.  What about this alternative: the Steelers refuse to “reach” for players based upon their scouting reports.  This is of course impossible for us to know from our perspective but it may be that for OL and CB there are very few truly stand out players.  Add to that the fact that the Steelers are routinely drafting late and it may simply be that anyone they deem worthy of a 1st or 2nd round pick is long gone.  If the OL prospects #4-10 are roughly equivalent, why not invest in a player at a different position that you think is a much stronger prospect? 

        • GlennW

          I’m fine with not “reaching” in the draft, but I’m convinced we can do a much better job with the O-line, by whatever means.  It’s not like the Steelers haven’t spent money there, given the lucrative (if unfullfilled) contracts that Starks, Kemo, and Colon all recently received.

          For example it frustrates me to no end that the Patriots can consistently cobble together an O-line (with no draft bluechips with the possible exception of Logan Mankins, who nonetheless was considered a draft “reach”) such that Tom Brady can drop back and read a book in the pocket– even against the likes of our defense.  I know that the Patriots have other problems, but they value their QB’s health as a major priority and respond accordingly– this offseason they had holes on the right side and plugged in free agent Brian Waters at RG and Nate Solder at RT (I know that Solder is a 1st-rounder, but he played great as a fill-in in his very first start) and appear not to have missed a beat.  Looks like a similar story with the Ravens and McKinnie… I mean seriously, what the hell?  Is is really *that* difficult to assemble just an average pass-blocking line, even with a shortterm solution?

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UR6KXGPFIFYZSVJNCXCJNHDQJQ Bob Costas

            Yes, it does seem that New England and Indy can get by with less.  I honestly wonder how much of that is Brady and Manning being superior at pre-snap recognition.  Roethlisberger is obviously a very skilled quarterback but I have my doubts about how much he studies. 

          • Joe Stitt

            It helps when NE has about 25 picks each draft because people love to trade away their future for Patriot players.

          • Anonymous

            Manning yes. But Brady? No way. For him the scheme’s the thing, and he’s sitting behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.

          • GlennW

            That’s a fair point about Ben, and furthermore I don’t think he’s as preoccupied with his reads as other QBs and even prefers to play the schoolyard game– just bring it on and I’ll beat you anyway.  So how many of the breakdowns are just plain O-line collapses (I think there are plenty of those) and how many are preventable via adjustment, we don’t precisely know.

            As for the Patriots, it may be all about scheme, but don’t kid yourself about Brady’s role it that.  Did you see Monday night’s game?  Brady made most of the calls at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle, and freely audibled throughout the game including on the 99-yard TD to Welker.  The guy’s one of the best at defensive recognition and response.  Credit where it’s due, man.

      • EasyLikeSundayMorning

        Hartwig was not a disaster, certainly not in his first year.  The difference between him and Mahan was humongous. 

        Isn’t Urbik now a starter for the Bills?

        • GlennW

          Hmmm, looks like Urbik is starting at RG.  If anything that makes it worse though– if the guy has even a pulse as a player it’s a real head-scratcher that we would cut such a 3rd-rounder (and our second pick in that draft) after only one year and almost no game time at such a position of need (and no, I don’t think having Darnell Stapleton or Trai Essex or whomever else at the position mitigates the situation).
           
          Yeah, I know that I sound like a complainer, but that’s really not the intent.  I think any objective observer would admit that we’ve had some real talent evaluation problems at O-line, even while acknowledging excellent personnel success elsewhere.

  • ArchnerdUW

    This is such a tired argument. In the drafts mentioned (2003-2009) why doesn’t the author list the players he would have wanted to not be Steelers in exchange for picks along the offensive line? Sure it is easy to pick the low hanging fruit of Anthony Smith, Colclough, and Alonzo Jackson. But what about Timmons, Woodley, etc? Which of those players is worth the opportunity cost of a pick at another position? Additionally, if one exams the roster at the time of each draft scrutinized in the article, other position groups were more of a necessity/critical need than OL. For the past decade this has been a team that has viewed itself as consistently just short of a championship. For instance, the whole point of Anthrony Smith was to provide the missing piece to a championship caliber defense, didn’t work out but the logic of the pick at the time was tenable.

    Finally, too many factors are conflated here. During a portion of the period analyzed, it was still possible to have a Cowher style power run line and win. Now every team needs a pass blocking line. As the Steelers evolved (particularly with the arrival of Ben) from a power running team to a multi-receiver pass first team, they have been caught having the wrong “style” of lineman for their scheme. An extreme example of this kind of personnel mismatch is the current Colts w/out Manning. That is not a line which is suited to run block and support a play-action passing game — Kerry Collins’ strength. Plus more effort needs to be made untangle the role(s) Cowher and Colbert have each played in draft strategy and roster composition. In other words, what does one due with the fact that it is widely rumored that Alonzo Jackson was drafted on Cowher’s “gut feeling” over the objections of Colbert and other members of the front office. So where does that blame get assigned? For all we know Colbert wanted a lineman or a corner at that draft slot?

    Sorry, despite all the research and numbers supporting the claims in this post it is heavily biased and a very non-nuanced viewpoint. Of course, I’m just a homer who can’t bring himself to criticize my favorite team.

    • GlennW

      > Additionally, if one exams the roster at the time of each draft scrutinized in the article, other position groups were more of a necessity/critical need than OL.

      Sometimes, sometimes not.  From the more recent drafts (I see no point in going all the way back to Alonzo Jackson, when the O-line was in good shape and the defense was slipping), in the first 3 rounds the selections of Spaeth, Davis and Worilds all appeared to be “luxury” picks– even at the time.  I’ll give Ted that much, although I think he does overplay his hand with some of the other stuff.

      I do sincerely believe that the Steelers’ front office has an attitude of “with Ben at QB, we can get by with a subpar O-line” and that this situation is untenable going forward.  It’s only a matter of time before that bubble bursts.  I can even live with the CB situation by comparison, because the unrealistic expectations at that position aren’t in line with NFL performance norms (i.e. secondaries are toasted by good QBs all over the league), whereas keeping your QB from being crushed on a regular basis isn’t some crazy pipe dream. 

      • ArchnerdUW

        I agree that Ben’s style of play has masked deficiencies along the line for several years now. But look at your examples of “luxury” picks. Take Bruce Davis in the 3rd in 2008. At the time you have Harrison and an emerging Woodley as your starters, but no depth behind them. This is a bad situation for a 3-4 team with a weak secondary. Davis was regarded as potentially one of the best outside rusher in that draft class (I stress POTENTIAL). He also fit the Colbert profile, long time college starter with production at a big time school. Well we all know how that worked out. But what did the pick cost the team in terms of offensive line? They missed out on the following players(limiting it to offensive line players taken between Davis and the Steelers next pick – an offensive lineman!): Anthony Collins, Chad Rhineheart, Oniel Cousins, Mike McGlynn, Cody Wallace, Kory Lichtenstieger, and Shawn Murphy not exactly anyone who would have helped the situation. The real shame of the Davis pick is that it meant the team didn’t take Jermichael Finley or Cliff Avril (isn’t hindsight fun?) and spent picks at OLB in future drafts to make up for Davis being a bust.

        The same can be done for Spaeth. You get this list of names: Marshall Yanda, Andy Alleman, and Mario Henderson. Only Yanda can be seen as “missing out” on a quality player form that list.

        For Worilds the list is as follows: Vladimir Ducasse, Charles Brown, Jon Asomoah, Edwin Veldheer, John Jerry, J.D. Walton. Not an impressive group of lineman there either.

        My point is this, the argument that the Steelers ignore the oline and make multiple “bad” draft picks is a lazy oversimplification. In a salary cap league, each team has to decide what position groups they will be deep at and where they will be thin. It appears the Steelers, at least of recent vintage, have decided to prioritize the defensive front 7 and offensive skill positions at the cost of the line and defensive backfield. Do I agree with those choices in all cases? Of course not, but I find it hard to quibble with the results. You are correct the bubble may be bursting. I think the front office has realized that, hence the drafting of Pouncey and Gilbert.

  • Jim

    You had me until 2012 is going to be a rebuilding year – not a chance of that happening. We will be in contention for years to come. How many franchises would trade their core of young guys/ players in their prime for our core? The VAST majority. Ben, Mendy, Wallace, Sanders, Brown, Miller, Pouncey, Heyward, Hood, Woodley, Timmons, Ike, Troy – every one of which was a Steelers draft pick. Do I wish the Steelers had a better o line and better CBs? Of course. We all do. But every team in the NFL is going to have flaws, that’s just the way it is. Nobody has a perfect team.

  • JJT11

    The Ravens younger, faster argument is all media BS.  The only younger, faster people that did anything on Sunday were the TEs.  Rice has been there, and the defensive guys making plays were the usual suspects of Ngata, Suggs, Reed and Lewis.

    McKinnie certainly is not young or fast and had the luxury of going up against Harrison at 70%.  Our d-line was getting killed period, they would have gotten killed by anybody Sunday, they didn’t come to play.  Let’s see how things go on Nov 6th.

    Our o-line is a problem, let’s hope Gilbert is decent and they figure out RG.

  • BoogityBoogityBoogity

    What a fucking prisoner of the moment. And if you think the Steelers had the worst line in the NFL last season you’re not half as smart as you think you are. And I agree with the people that are tired of reading about Alonzo Jackson and Bruce Davis. We get it, dude. Stop beating the dead horse. I don’t know why I clicked on this article when I saw your name on it. I’ll go back to ignoring anything with your name on it. 

  • BoogityBoogityBoogity

    What a fucking prisoner of the moment. And if you think the Steelers had the worst line in the NFL last season you’re not half as smart as you think you are. And I agree with the people that are tired of reading about Alonzo Jackson and Bruce Davis. We get it, dude. Stop beating the dead horse. I don’t know why I clicked on this article when I saw your name on it. I’ll go back to ignoring anything with your name on it. 

  • Mike L

    Tune in tomorrow as Ted breaks down the mistake in Tom Brady’s game Monday night. 
    Preview:
    Ted- Brady was not perfect, not even close.  One the 13th play of the 3rd quarter you can clearly see an open receiver that Tom did not throw to.
    rebuttle Tom- Who is Ted and why should I care?
    Ted- Avoiding responding clearly shows I am in the right.

    Please Ted, since you know best, who would your draft (in the steelers slots, this past year)  and do so every year so we can compare your skills to Colbert.  In fact make it a post for everyone so we can revisit the following year.  Having seen your mock drafts you do multiple senarios so there are 20-30 players you tell JJ you like.  Then you bombard everyone on the boards with the on or two that might have been better than Colbert’s picks, I don’t see that as a very good average.