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Pittsburgh Steelers Need to Build Identity by Solving Offensive Line Woes

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Pittsburgh Steelers Need to Build Identity by Solving Offensive Line Woes
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Mike Tomlin's all smiles, but Todd Haley (right) must make his mark on providing an identity to the offense.

For years, the Pittsburgh Steelers prided themselves on commitment to a strong, physical running game. In recent years, they have done everything possible to leave fans dazed and confused over what their identity is.

One of the most important things an offense must establish is their identity. This lets your franchise know which coaches you need, how to build the roster, and what the expected standard is offensively.

How many more offseasons does Pittsburgh need in which they talk about how they are going to return to “Steeler football” and run the ball more, while at the same time they just drafted some really good wide receivers, and also talk about using the no-huddle more often? It does not add up.

These inconsistent philosophies on how to run the offense have been largely pushed aside during coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure. “The standard is the standard,” as Tomlin likes to say.

Now with a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley, the Steelers must establish some type of identity on offense and raise those standards. They finished just 21st in scoring last season.

Ironically, no team in the league may have more of a defined identity on defense than Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 attack. Yet with the offense, all we have come to expect is there will be a lot of sacks each season. It all starts up front, where the talent has been scarce in recent years.

But after years of neglecting the offensive line, the Steelers finally took action.

Center Maurkice Pouncey was drafted 18th overall in 2010. Marcus Gilbert, a tackle from Florida, was drafted 65th overall in 2011. Now this year, the team drafted Stanford guard David DeCastro 24th overall, and went right back to the line with tackle Mike Adams (Ohio State) 56th overall.

This new approach to building up the offensive line combined with the talent at the skill positions could extend the Steelers’ window of opportunity for another championship.

Let’s take a look back at how Pittsburgh’s identity was lost, the degeneration of the offensive line, and the path to a better future.

 

When smash-mouth football last existed in Pittsburgh

During Bill Cowher’s tenure from 1992 to 2006, no team in the NFL won more regular season games (149), had more rushing attempts (7,832), or rushed for more yards (32,303) than his Pittsburgh Steelers.

After running a young Barry Foster into the ground, Cowher’s teams used the large battering ram in Jerome Bettis. He followed the blocks of a talented offensive line, which included high draft picks such as 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrine Dermontti Dawson and 1998 first-round pick Alan Faneca (let’s try and forget Jamain Stephens).

This vision continued into the early 2000’s as the team drafted Marvel Smith 38th overall in 2000. A year later in free agency they signed former first-round pick Jeff Hartings to play center. Finally, the Steelers drafted guard Kendall Simmons in the first round in 2002.

While the offensive line was set, the problem was they had nothing worth protecting at quarterback. Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox were not the answer.

 

2004-05: Finally getting a new franchise quarterback

Enter Ben Roethlisberger with the No. 11 pick of the 2004 draft. The team’s best quarterback since Terry Bradshaw, Roethlisberger’s playmaking skills were evident very early in his rookie season. The Steelers finally had a signal caller that could lead them back to a Super Bowl victory.

With an impressive left side of the line featuring Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings, the Steelers ran the ball with consistency. They rushed for at least 100 yards in 31 of the 38 games played in 2004 and 2005.

They also were adequate enough in pass protection. Roethlisberger was deadly on play-action passes, and the Steelers had the ability to be a very balanced offense early in his career.

Guard Keydrick Vincent and tackle Oliver Ross made up the right side of the line that season. In 2005, the offense got better. Kendall Simmons, the often-injured guard who missed all of 2004, returned at right guard for the entire season. Max Starks, the large tackle drafted in the third round with Roethlisberger in 2004, started at right tackle.

After adding a much smaller speed back in Willie Parker as the primary ball carrier, and drafting Heath Miller in the first round, the Steelers had a more complete offense.

They were deadly at the start of games. No team scored more points in the first quarter of games in both 2004 (123 points) and 2005 (99 points) than Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger averaged 11.71 yards per attempt in the first quarter of games in 2005. His passer rating was 144.2.

Pittsburgh would win Super Bowl XL, becoming the first team to win three straight road playoff games and then the Super Bowl. Bill Cowher delivered the long-awaited “one for the thumb.” He finally had a quarterback to run his offense.

Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl, was 27-4 (.871) in the games he started. Though Jerome Bettis retired, the team appeared to be in great shape for a dynastic run.

 

2006: Things fell apart in a hurry

Not so fast. Roethlisberger had the first of his infamous offseason incidents with a June 2006 motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. Just before the season started, he underwent an emergency appendectomy and missed the season opener.

When he returned in Week 2 against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday Night Football, he was in for a rude awakening. That once balanced offense and superb offensive line he enjoyed his first two seasons was no longer working for him.

Pittsburgh rushed for 26 yards that night, which is the second fewest total during Cowher’s career. They lost 9-0. They would rush for just 21 yards in a 27-0 loss to Baltimore later that season.

The running game was inconsistent, with four games of over 200 yards, and four games under 65 yards. It was inconsistent because the offensive line regressed too.

Roethlisberger’s season was plagued by health issues, including another concussion midway through the season after he started finding his rhythm. He was sacked 46 times and led the league in interceptions with 23.

Pittsburgh threw the ball on 54.9 percent of the plays in 2006, compared to 40.8 percent in 2004-05.

The team finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. Bill Cowher retired, and some felt he should have joined Bettis in retirement a year earlier. It was not a typical Cowher season, as the fire appeared to dissipate after winning a championship, and he waffled on the decision of returning.

Jeff Hartings also retired after the season, as he struggled in his final year at age 34. This left a few holes the team needed to fill in 2007.

 

2007: The Mike Tomlin/Bruce Arians era begins

The defensive-minded Mike Tomlin was hired as the third Pittsburgh head coach since 1969. Wide receivers coach Bruce Arians was promoted to offensive coordinator after Ken Whisenhunt moved on to Arizona.

With a hole at center, the Steelers signed free agent Sean Mahan; a former fifth-round pick in 2003 by Tampa Bay. Since center of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been a glamorous position, Mahan’s poor play was not received well by the fans.

Mahan was traded right back to Tampa Bay after the season, and he only made four more starts in his NFL career.

In 2007, Roethlisberger had an excellent rebound season, setting franchise records with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating. Even though he was sacked 47 times and had a career-worst 10.4 sack percentage, Roethlisberger thrived in his first season of having more control of the offense.

Even though this offensive line was criticized, they were able to build chemistry with Faneca, Mahan, Simmons and new right tackle starter Willie Colon (fourth-round pick in 2006) starting all 16 games. Only Smith missed four games, and Starks filled his spot.

Faneca, coming off his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, spent his last season in Pittsburgh as he would become a free agent and move on to the New York Jets. That meant at least two changes had to be made on the line.

 

2008: The worst offensive line to ever win a Super Bowl

Who could possibly fill the shoes of a future Hall of Fame guard like Alan Faneca? Apparently the Steelers thought Chris Kemoeatu, drafted in the sixth round in 2005 (204th overall,) was the answer.

As for center, the Steelers went for a low-price free agent in Justin Hartwig, who had 63 career starts for Tennessee and Carolina.

Early season-ending injuries to Simmons and Smith opened up two more spots on the offensive line. Starks assumed the left tackle spot again, while second-year undrafted lineman Darnell Stapleton stepped in at right guard.

The season was a real struggle offensively for the Steelers. The running game fell to 23rd in yards and 29th in yards per carry. Short-yardage plays were a disaster.

Despite starting every game, Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times and suffered multiple injuries throughout the season. The team relied on their No. 1 defense and Roethlisberger’s late game-winning drives on their way to a 12-4 record.

They reached Super Bowl XLIII against Arizona with an offensive line featuring: a third-round tackle, an inexperienced sixth-round guard, a sixth-round veteran center, an inexperienced undrafted guard, and a fourth-round tackle.

This is why the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers are commonly referred to as the worst offensive line to ever win a Super Bowl. Even in the big game, they nearly blew it late. Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes with a dagger out of his end zone on a 3rd-and-10 play, but Hartwig was called for holding in the end zone, which is a safety.

Arizona scored the go-ahead touchdown on the ensuing drive. Roethlisberger had to lead the classic game-winning drive, which was really 88 yards because of a holding penalty on Kemoeatu at the start of it. Roethlisberger, often scrambling for his life on the drive, found Holmes four times for 73 yards and the epic touchdown.

With his plague of back injuries and age (30,) the Steelers cut ties with Marvel Smith in the offseason. San Francisco signed him, but Smith announced his retirement in August of 2009, never playing a game for anyone but Pittsburgh.

Likewise, Simmons was also released shortly after the season. He played in four games (no starts) for New England and Buffalo in 2009, and ended that season on injured reserve. He was released by Buffalo on March 5, 2010, and has not been in the league since.

 

2009: Identity is further smeared

The first Super Bowl title defense did not go well, and this one would also be a troubling season.

Several events took place:

  • Starks signed a four-year contract worth $26.3 million, with $10 million guaranteed. The Steelers would regret that cost.
  • Rashard Mendenhall (injured reserve in 2008) took over the starting running back job from Willie Parker.
  • The Steelers may have picked the steal of the draft with wide receiver Mike Wallace in the third round.
  • Darnell Stapleton suffered a preseason knee injury that ended his season and his NFL career.

Stapleton was replaced at right guard by Trai Essex; a tackle drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft. Essex had four career starts in his first four seasons.

Like in 2007, the offensive line did have some continuity, with Starks, Hartwig, Essex and Colon starting all 16 games. Kemoeatu missed four games, which were started by undrafted rookie Ramon Foster.

Once again, Roethlisberger thrived with his improved weapons and better chemistry line in front of him. He passed for a franchise-record 4,328 yards, 26 touchdown passes, and a 100.5 passer rating.

In 2009, the Steelers lost a lot of close games (the type they won the year before). As I explained last year:

 

Of the Steelers’ seven losses, they led in the fourth quarter five times, and were tied in a sixth game. Three times they allowed the winning score with less than just fifteen seconds left. The main difference between 2008 and 2009 for Pittsburgh? They usually had time left for Roethlisberger to do something in 2008.

Though the passing game, which was used on 57.8 percent of the plays, was clearly the strength of the team, some actually thought to ridicule it for the team’s disappointing 9-7 finish. This was the beginning of hearing rumors about dissension over the running game and the firing of Bruce Arians.

 

2010: Despite the battered line, a third Super Bowl appearance

Whether or not the Steelers wanted to run the ball more, they had the perfect excuse to early in the season. Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games for violating the personal conduct policy after a second accusation (without any charges or arrests) of sexual assault.

Before the season, several moves once again were made on the offense:

  • Despite allowing 10 sacks and six penalties in 10 games for Buffalo, the Steelers signed tackle Jonathan Scott.
  • Maurkice Pouncey was drafted with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2010 draft.
  • Santonio Holmes was traded to the Jets after the team had enough of his antics.
  • The draft would net potential replacements in talented receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
  • With an offseason injury to Willie Colon, the Steelers signed 35-year old free agent Flozell Adams to play right tackle.
  • After never playing a game for Pittsburgh, 2009’s third-round pick Kraig Urbik was released. He has started 15 games for Buffalo since 2010.
  • Justin Hartwig was released in final roster cuts, and has not been in the league since. He was as much a liability as Mahan in 2007.

Using a first-round pick on a center is not desirable, but at least the Steelers showed some acknowledgment over the offensive line problem. Many of the other moves made were questionable to say the least.

Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers started 3-1 by playing “hide the quarterback” offense. In those games, the running game averaged 118 yards per game (4.25 yards per carry). When Roethlisberger returned, those numbers fell to 101.2 yards per game (3.85 yards per carry).

But the offense was better because they had their quarterback again.

Starks suffered a neck injury midseason, and was replaced by Scott. Three different players started at right guard during the season, including another undrafted free agent in Doug Legursky.

The nation would learn Legursky’s name when he was forced to finish the AFC Championship at center after Pouncey went down with an ankle injury. Legursky also started in Super Bowl XLV, which the Steelers would lose to Green Bay, 31-25.

The Steelers used six different starting offensive line combinations during the season.

 

2011: The boiling point

Absent was the offseason drama, but the 2011 season was a strange one for the Steelers as they never really seemed to be playing well despite their record.

An opening-day disaster in Baltimore (35-7 loss) saw Willie Colon suffer yet another season-ending injury. The rookie Marcus Gilbert got an early jump on his career as a starter. Some thought the team would call back Flozell Adams, but Super Bowl XLV was the last game of his career.

The nation got to see Pittsburgh’s offensive line woes in a Sunday Night Football game at Indianapolis in Week 3. Jonathan Scott was especially bad in his attempts to block Dwight Freeney. Multiple linemen went down with injuries throughout the game.

Four different players started at left guard last season.

The team called Max Starks back and his miraculously quick return sparked a good surge where the team went 4-1 with the offense playing well. Before that point, the team used a different starting line combination in seven straight games.

But things regressed, and just scoring 20 points proved to be a difficult task.

Late in the season, both Roethlisberger and Pouncey suffered ankle injuries against Cleveland, which limited their playing time and effectiveness down the stretch. Pouncey missed a playoff game again, while a hobbled Roethlisberger’s rally fell short to “Tebow Time” in Denver.

In 2011, the Steelers were unable to start the same starting five on the line for more than four games at a time. Likely not a coincidence that was Roethlisberger’s best stretch of the season, with 325.3 passing yards per game. 

The following is a yearly breakdown of Pittsburgh’s starting offensive line for each season in the Tomlin/Arians era (click here for large table):

Of the 16 players to start on Pittsburgh’s offensive line since 2007, nine are not currently on any NFL roster, with six having last played for Pittsburgh. The remaining seven are still currently on Pittsburgh’s roster, and only one of those players has ever been on another NFL team (Jonathan Scott).

As the talent on the offensive line eroded, the Steelers continued to start late-round picks and undrafted players that were not good, signed free agents no other teams were interested in, and ignored the unit early in the draft.

The team has remained competitive almost exclusively because of Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to make plays out of nothing, and Dick LeBeau’s defense.

 

2012: Change is coming

Apparently Pittsburgh finally had enough of the inconsistency on offense, and the revolving doors along the offensive line.

In an offseason of change with the retirements of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke and release of James Farrior, it was time to do some housecleaning.

They removed Bruce Arians, much to the chagrin of Roethlisberger (per Pro Football Talk). He was replaced with Todd Haley from Kansas City. For the first time since Kevin Gilbride in 2000, Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator will be someone who was not a promoted assistant from the team’s coaching staff.

Despite a five-year contract signed after Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers released Chris Kemoeatu on March 3. He has drawn almost no buzz, and remains a free agent as we get closer to July. Kemoeatu is 29.

Starks is rehabbing his ACL injury and hopes to return in 2012. He may have to look elsewhere.

The team is hopeful Mike Wallace will be there for training camp, which gives Roethlisberger a strong group of receivers with Brown, Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery (great replacement for Hines Ward) and Miller at tight end.

Rashard Mendenhall will likely start the season on the PUP list, but Isaac Redman is ready to carry the load early in the season.

After six years of having the quarterback, but not the line to protect him, Pittsburgh hopes these four premium draft picks make up eighty percent of their line for the long-term.

With Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert at tackle, Maurkice Pouncey at center, and David DeCastro at one of the guard spots, this has the potential to be Pittsburgh’s best offensive line in a decade.

No longer the incomplete offense looking for the line or the quarterback, 2012 has the potential to be Pittsburgh’s best offense since the late 1970s.

 

Winning is the only identity that matters

All the banter over what kind of offense Todd Haley will run is pointless. Note that Haley’s 2008 Arizona Cardinals, under Ken Whisenhunt, were second in the league in pass attempts and dead last in rushes.

That Arizona team nearly beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. That team is a much better model of what Haley has to work with in Pittsburgh compared to what he had in Kansas City.

The identity the Steelers need to develop is one of an offense that can do whatever is necessary to score points and win games. Percentages of play calls are irrelevant.

If Roethlisberger has more time in the pocket to play his game, and the backs find more running lanes available, then the Steelers will have the identity of an elite offense.

They have all the pieces of talent you need offensively. Now it is time to put it all together.

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