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?
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.