Pittsburgh Steelers: Turning Biggest Weakness into Strength
It wasn't that long ago, if everyone remembers correctly, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line was one of the most dominant in the game. Marvell Smith, Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings made up one of the best left sides in the NFL.
They were responsible for much of the success of Jerome Bettis, and kept players like Tommy Maddox alive, while even giving players like Kordell Stewart time to throw the ball.
Jeff Hartings retired in 2006, ending a string of success at the center position that dated back to the 1970's, with Ray Mansfield. It was then filled by Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who was followed by Hall of Famer Dermonti Dawson.
The Steelers replaced their centers like they did their head coaches: keep them until they didn't want to be there anymore, let them retire, then put in the next young stud.
At guard, Alan Faneca spoiled Steelers Nation, as he was without question one of the best guards that has ever played the game. Even though Faneca left the Steelers and played for the Jets and Cardinals, after he left he still was, and is, a Steeler for life. If one day Faneca isn't in the Hall of Fame, it will be a joke.
On the outside was Marvell Smith. Though Smith was never the best tackle in the league, he held his own.
Between these three players, they accounted for 12 Pro Bowl appearances and 11 All Pro honors.
The Steelers lost all three of these players in the span of two years. Hartings retired in 2006, Faneca left the Steelers in '07, and even though Smith was on the roster until '08, injuries ended his abilities before then.
Then the wheels seemed to come off, as the Steelers were content to fill their offensive line with cast-offs and late round picks. From 2005-2009, the Steelers spent a total of nine draft picks on offensive linemen.
Twice, they spent third-round picks: Tony Hills and Craig Urbik. Neither one panned out. Hillis was a decent back up, but could never be more than a temporary sub. Urbik didn't last more than one season.
Willie Colon, the only player of the nine selected, was a fourth-round pick in 2006. Colon was drafted as a guard, and was forced to move to tackle.
Cameron Stephenson (Round 5) and Chris Kemoeatu were both guards (6th) that were taken late, and even though Kemoeatu was seen as a decent starter, it was more that he was being compared to other players that simply were worse than he was.
Throw in a couple seventh-round centers, A.Q. Shipley and Marvin Philip, and one of the worst offensive lines in the history of the NFL was formed.
It was only two years ago, that the Steelers started re-building their offensive line, and the moves over the last two years bring hope to Steelers Nation that one day, most likely soon, the Steelers offensive line may in fact be better than the one with Hartings, Faneca and Smith.
In the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Maurkice Pouncey out of the University of Florida with their first-round pick.
In his rookie season, with the line being as bad as it was, the Steelers were hoping that Pouncey would be able to spend a year learning the center position while playing guard, and be able to take over in his second season.
His hard work and dedication proved strong, as not only was he able to start, he started at his position of center from day one, and earn Pro Bowl nominations in both of his first two years, along with All Pro honors last year.
Although the Steelers tradition dating back to the late 60's has been re-established, only one piece is not enough to complete an offensive line overhaul, and that is what the Steelers needed.
In the Round 2 of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected a former teammate of Pouncey in Marcus Gilbert from the University of Florida.
Now, comparing Gilbert to Pouncey is not really a fair comparison. What Gilbert did was start 14 games at right tackle. He also played well enough for the Steelers to declare him the left tackle starter before free agency even began.
Even with Pouncey and Gilbert set at their positions already, there was still much need for improvement on the offensive line going forward, and Steelers Nation was hoping to improve their line with their first-round pick.
In most mock drafts, the Steelers were slated to take Mike Adams out of Ohio State in the first round, but a positive drug test at the combine had Steelers fans calling for Dont'a Hightower in the first. Then, something happened that no one even considered.
The best guard in the draft, and the second best offensive lineman, was available when the Steelers were on the clock with their 24th pick, Dave DeCastro out of Stanford.
To look at why DeCastro was rated as high as he was, all you have to do is look at his body of work. In his college career, he allowed one sack. No, that wasn't a misprint, ONE sack is all he allowed while starting for three years. Not to mention he is a nasty run blocker, and has speed to pull and lead block.
In comparison, people are saying that DeCastro is a Steve Hutchinson-type player, and Hutchinson was an Alan Faneca-type player. Translation: DeCastro brings to the table the same type of player that the Steelers had with Faneca.
When the Steelers were on the clock in the second round of the NFL Draft, it appeared that the player most mock drafts had the Steelers taking in the first round, was still going to be available when the Steelers drafted. Then, he was.
In the second round, the Steelers selected Mike Adams out of Ohio State.
Yes, there are a couple red flags about Adams, and they are something that could be seen as a concern. Adams was suspended to start the 2011 season at Ohio State, because he traded some of his Ohio State stuff for tattoos. Call this a big deal if you would like, but what he did is not anything he could get in trouble for at the NFL level.
However, smoking weed in the NFL will get you in trouble, and the second red flag was a positive drug test at the scouting combine. This is much more of a flag because that can get you suspended, and as we learned with Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh doesn't like players like that.
There is even rumor that Adams is willing to delay his signing bonus, so that the Steelers can see how dedicated he is.
After the red flags have been resolved, you have to look at the upside of Adams, as he was considered a first-round talent before the draft, one that most had the Steelers taking in the first round.
This gives the Steelers two starters that were taken in the first round of the last three drafts (Pouncey / DeCastro), and two that were taken in the second round of the last two drafts (Gilbert / Adams) to build on for the future.
With the neglect that the Steelers showed for the five years prior to drafting Pouncey, their offensive line was just horrible. In the last three years, it is clear that the Steelers understand the mistakes that were made, and have rectified the situation better than anyone could have asked.
I am not saying that this group will be the best in the NFL this year, but it is easy to imagine that over the course of the next two years, this unit will most likely be considered one of the best in the NFL. With young and talented players protecting Ben Roethlisberger, this line has turned the Steelers' greatest weakness into one of its best strengths.
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