Success Of Pittsburgh Steelers In 2009 Depends On Offensive Line

Brian CarsonCorrespondent IMay 10, 2009

PITTSBURGH - MAY 01:  Kraig Urbik #65 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during rookie training camp at the Pittsburgh Steelers Practice Facility on May 1, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

It's hard to believe a defending Super Bowl champion with 20 starters returning could have any weaknesses, but the Pittsburgh Steelers do.

And it could come back to bite them in 2009.

Without a doubt, the Steelers had the worst offensive line of any Super Bowl champion in history.

Don't believe me?

Check out the stats.

In 2008, the offensive line gave up 57 sacks, eight of those coming in the playoffs. Most games found QB Ben Roethlisberger doing his best Fran Tarkenton or Roger Staubach impersonation.

Flashback to February and Super Bowl XLIII. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Remember the final drive and how Big Ben had to run for his life on every play. Steeler fans everywhere were thanking the football gods that Dominique Rogers-Cromartie couldn't cover Santonio Holmes.

Head coach Mike Tomlin was just happy Roethlisberger made it through the season in one piece.

Now that the glow of a world championship has died down, it's time to take off the rose-colored glasses and see the offensive line for what it is—a glaring weakness. One that could cost this franchise a repeat performance and a seventh ring.

What did the Pittsburgh front office do to address the problem in the off-season?

Not much.

Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons were let go, and not one lineman was signed in free agency. The draft produced two picks—Wisconsin G Kraig Urbik was tabbed in the third round and Penn State center A.Q. Shipley was a seventh round selection. Look for Urbik to challenge for a starting spot from the get-go. Shipley will need some time to develop.

The good news is all five starters return a year older, wiser and hopefully better. The bad news, this is the same five guys who gave up all those sacks in 2008.

The line has size, center Justin Hartwig (6-4, 312), LG Chris Kemoeatu (6-3, 344), RG Darnell Stapleton (6-5, 305), LT Max Starks (6-8, 345), and RT Willie Colon (6-3, 315) all are 300-plus pounders who, at times, can be dominant run blockers. 

The problem is pass protection.

If Roethlisberger goes down, the season is over for Pittsburgh. Byron Leftwich left to try and win the Tampa Bay job, which leaves veteran Charlie Batch, and youngster Dennis Dixon as the second and third options.

Batch is a solid player and a good locker room leader, but has a history of injury problems and is entering his 13th season. His best days are behind him. Dixon was a spread option QB at Oregon and isn't ready to be in charge of an NFL team.

Big Ben is the face of the franchise and a bona fide superstar. His health and well-being are the primary drivers for this organization to be successful. That and a nasty Dick LeBeau defense.

Roethlisberger is tough, but even he can't keep taking all the hits he does game in and game out, season after season. There may not be a sense of urgency in Pittsburgh regarding the o-line situation, but it will come on fast if the line struggles early on.

There isn't much left for the Steelers in free agency. If nothing transpires on the waiver wire once training camps get underway, they'll have to go with what they got.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to repeat as Super Bowl Champions, the offensive line must get better at protecting its star player. If it doesn't, Steeler fans will have to wait for that seventh ring.