Each year, the Pittsburgh Steelers enter training camp with the hope that the offensive line will turn things around. Well, this could finally be the year.
After years of ignoring the offensive line, the Steelers spent the past several drafts investing heavily in the offensive line. Since 2010, the Steelers have spent two first-round and two second-round selections on offensive linemen.
More importantly, the Steelers allowed veterans Max Starks and Willie Colon to leave via agency, meaning they are finally committing to their young linemen.
With the talent now in place, the offensive line is going to have to learn to work together under new coach Jack Bicknell Jr.
Things are pretty cut and dry at the center position. Maurkice Pouncey is the man, and there is virtually no viable depth behind him.
Now in his fourth season, there will be a lot of expectations placed on him. He will be expected to lead a young, athletic line as they finally begin to work together as a unit.
Pouncey has lived up to his first-round draft status, being selected to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in each of his three seasons. But many believe that Pouncey is overrated and has been living off of his reputation that he developed as a rookie.
Pro Football Focus leads the crowd. They ranked him as the 14th-best center in 2012 and ranked him as an “above average” player in their 2013 preview. It is worth noting that the highest two ratings on their scale were “elite (blue chip)” and “high quality.”
Even if he didn’t miss a start, Pouncey can be overmatched when not at 100 percent. There are times when he has trouble with large nose tackles, even when healthy.
However, with all of that said, the 6’4”, 304-pound center is Pittsburgh’s most athletic and tenacious offensive lineman.
Pouncey can pull like few centers in the league and is terrific at getting to the second level. He is also one of the hardest workers in practice and never takes a play off.
While a great example on the field, his off-field actions are a cause for concern, particularly wearing the “Free Hernandez” hat recently. He apologized for the incident, and it remains to be seen if it will be a distraction at camp.
Joe Madsen is the only other listed center on the roster.
At 6’3” and 310 pounds, Madsen has good size, but he's still pretty athletic. He is also very experienced with 38 starts in three years. The biggest concern with Madsen will be his strength. There is a sizable difference between the size and strength of college and NFL defensive linemen, and he will have to adjust.
If no one else on the roster can prove they can snap the ball, Madsen will have an excellent shot at making the team.
At 27 years old, Ramon Foster is the Steelers' most experienced offensive lineman. He has started 42 games in four seasons—including 30 consecutive starts—and has played every position except center. After primarily playing right guard, Foster will settle in on the left side of the line, where he will take over for the departed Willie Colon.
The 6’6” and 325-pound Foster is best known as a run-blocker, but he does a fair job in pass protection. Over the past two seasons he has allowed only eight sacks.
Last year’s first-round selection was supposed to start the season at right guard but missed most of his rookie season due to a knee injury. Coming out of Stanford, David DeCastro was regarded as one of the best offensive line prospects since Steve Hutchinson.
After a significant amount of rehabilitation, he was able to come back last year and start three games. Though he was not dominant, DeCastro at least began to show signs of why the Steelers took him with their first selection.
He made enough of an impression that NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks expects him to be the most improved offensive lineman in 2013.
Behind their starters, the Steelers have some interesting prospects at guard.
Leading the way is Kelvin Beachum. Though he is listed as a guard on the Steelers’ official website, he will be the primary backup at both guard and tackle. Injuries forced Beachum to start five games at right tackle last year. He performed very well, though he did allow 2.75 sacks.
Beachum impressed the coaches enough that they are preparing him as their top backup at every offensive line position, including center. Given the injuries that the Steelers have suffered on their offensive line, he almost certainly will play this year.
John Malecki is next in line with experience on the practice squad and active roster. Though he is undersized at 6’2” and 298 pounds, Malecki is a scrappy player who will hope to back up at guard and center.
The rest of the depth chart at guard is filled out with undrafted free agents with various amount of experience. These players include Justin Cheadle, Chris Hubbard and Nik Embernate.
Embernate is the one to watch given his physical style of play. He gets after defensive linemen and earned the nickname “Embernasty” in part due to his aggressiveness.
The Steelers are set at right tackle with Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum. The problem is, only one of these guys will play on the right side, and they need one to play on the left.
It was decided in February, when general manager Kevin Colbert told 93.7 The Fan that Gilbert would be the left tackle.
Gilbert had a strong rookie season at right tackle. He was rated the 13th-best tackle in pass-blocking efficiency by Pro Football Focus. His second year was limited to just five games. He was placed on the injured reserve list due to an ankle injury.
Of all of the tackles, Gilbert is best suited to start at left tackle.
He has decent feet and quickness and enough strength to hold off the power rushers. However, Gilbert will struggle against speed rushers; he does not have the quickness to get to the defensive ends and outside linebackers coming wide around the edge.
Adams will enter the season as the starter at right tackle after starting six games there last season. He played in an additional four games as a rookie and allowed five sacks. These numbers are slightly inflated. He was abused in the season opener against the Denver Broncos, when he was nowhere near ready for NFL action.
But not all was bad. Adams was named to the “Team of the Week, Week 7” by Pro Football Focus and was a major factor in a rejuvenated ground game.
Though he is not listed as a tackle, Beachum will also be a backup at this position.
The other players competing for a job are Guy Whimper, Mike Golic Jr., Joe Long and Mike Farrell.
Golic Jr. will be an interesting name to watch given his family bloodlines—his father and uncle both played in the NFL—and his ability to play tackle and guard. He will know what it takes to succeed in the NFL, though this will not guarantee success.
Long is another player with family that has NFL experience. His brother Jake was the first overall selection by the Miami Dolphins in 2008. He is an athletic tackle which should fit in well with his new offensive line coach’s philosophy.
The final option will be Farrell, who looks the part at 6’6” and 303 pounds but is the most limited prospect of the bunch. He will at least know what to expect in the NFL after playing under Bill O’Brien while at Penn State last season.
What should we expect from Jack Bicknell Jr.?
The Steelers hired Bicknell Jr. from the Kansas City Chiefs. He will be put in charge of developing their young offensive line.
From what he told Steelers.com, Bicknell first and foremost wants an offensive line that can move. He takes pride in the team’s rushing stats, as well as protecting the quarterback.
Of interest to most people is Bicknell’s scheme. Traditionally, the Steelers have been a man-blocking team, but there has been a lot of talk that they will move to a zone-blocking team since that is what Bicknell ran in Kansas City.
Expect there to be a combination of philosophies as he adapts to the running backs in the backfield.
Is Mike Adams healthy?
Mike Adams was stabbed early in the morning on June 1. Though he was expected to make a full recovery, he missed a significant amount of time just prior to the start of training camp.
We will have to wait and see how well he recovered and what type of physical condition he is to begin camp. Though he may be “healthy,” he may not be ready for the rigors of training camp.
If this is the case, expect him to be doing sprints on the sidelines to get himself back into shape while his teammates practice.
Who will be the backup at center?
Beachum is the most talented reserve, but having him learn all five line positions is a bit of concern in my mind. I would rather see Beachum perfect his game at guard and tackle before playing center.
Malecki would be my top choice, but he has to prove that he can snap the ball and meet all of the responsibilities of a center.
That leaves Madsen, who is a bit of a long shot, but he also has an advantage given his vast experience at the position. This will be an interesting battle to watch.
Will the offensive line live up to expectations?
The talent is in place; now the offensive line needs to go out and perform. The line struggled to find a rhythm last season given all of the injuries, so staying healthy will be the key to success this year.
Having a starting five set before camp and keeping them healthy and on the field will be huge to their development. Without this, they will not be able to come together as a cohesive unit and could once again struggle.