Like an addict that doesn’t want to admit he has a problem, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered the off-season with one glaring weakness, and they are entering spring mini-camp with the same Achilles’ heel.
Last season the Steelers offensive line gave up 49 Sacks (fourth most in the NFL) and paved the way for 1,690 yards rushing (23rd overall in the NFL). It’s a far cry from what most would think of when pondering the legacy of Steelers teams of the past.
When the lack of running game forced the Steelers to rely on the pass last season, teams like the Philadelphia Eagles were able to pin their ears back and come after the quarterback. The much stronger and faster players in the Eagles 4-3 scheme seemed to be the biggest struggle for the Steelers offensive line last season.
All four of the Steelers losses came against opponents running a 4-3 defensive scheme. Often times, the line was over matched by the bigger, stronger, faster interior linemen of the Giants, Titans, Eagles, and Colts who averaged 5.25 sacks in each of those games.
Had it not been for the incredible escape ability of Ben Roethlisberger, it is quite possible that the team could have given up well over 60 sacks last season.
With the departure of backup Quarterback Byron Leftwitch and the injury prone nature of Charlie Batch in past years (missed all of last season with a broken collarbone), the Steelers are going to need to do a better job of protecting Roethlisberger if they hope to avoid the Super Bowl Slump this coming season.
Overall the Steelers have had one heck of a run in the past year considering their current situation. The departure of All-Pro Guard Alan Faneca after the '07 campaign raised offensive line concerns going into the 2008 season. Losing tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons to injury early on, the Steelers should have had no chance to bring home a Lombardi Trophy last season.
The lack of activity by Steelers management this off-season has been puzzling to say the least. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an injury-plagued season in 2008. Most of which was the result of scrambling for his life behind a line that allowed him to be sacked 46 times.
One sack in particular left the Heinz Field crowd paralyzed, as they watched their franchise Quarterback being carted off the field after laying motionless at mid-field for over 15 minutes.
Considering the franchise has over $100 million invested in Roethlisberger, it only seemed natural that an upgrade to the offensive line would be a priority this off-season. The departure of Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons as free agents seemed to barely strike a chord with the Steelers front office.
Did they have their eye on a potential free agent to replace them? Apparently not. When a high profile guy like Colts All-Pro Center Jeff Saturday hit free agency, he sought out the Steelers specifically.
Saturday’s agent contacted the team pitching the idea of converting Saturday to the guard position, but they showed no interest, even with a discounted price tag. Leaving the roster altered only by subtraction from what it was at season’s end.
One would suspect the Steelers were planning to address their needs through the draft coming off a typically slow off-season with little movement in the free agent market. In a first round chock-full of high caliber offensive linemen, nabbing a big man seemed to be an easy solution to their protection problems.
Many, including me, expected the Steelers to deal a compensatory pick or more in order to move up and get their man. No such luck for Ben and the boys in the black and gold backfield. It was not until the third round that the Steelers selected their first new addition to the trenches.
The Steelers have dealt with their need by drafting two players that should be backups at best in their rookie year. With the 79th overall selection the Steelers drafted Kraig Urbik, an offensive tackle out of Wisconsin. Urbik is projected to be moved to guard in the NFL, but has been knocked for his athleticism (or lack thereof) and his inability to move in protection.
The next line selection came in the seventh and final round when Pittsburgh drafted A.Q. Shipley. Shipley was a very good center at the college level, but scouts had major concerns about his size coming into the draft.
At only 6’1”, the Penn State product has short arms and lacks the ideal size for an NFL center. Having seen Shipley play at the collegiate level, you can’t help but think of another undersized center in Mike Webster that earned a bust in Canton playing with the Steelers dynasty teams of the 70s.
Though it may be too late at this point, it is time to admit the weakness and begin rehabbing a potentially lethal situation. Exposure of the protection weaknesses on this team could prove fatal in a season where the defending Super Bowl champs will be wearing a bullseye.
They will play seven teams that employ a 4-3 defensive scheme this coming season. Eight if you count the Chiefs who are in a transition to the 3-4, but lack personnel to run it full-time.
The decisions that have and will be made concerning the offensive line are going to determine the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers going forward. Everyone wants a piece of the team with the trophy, and the Pittsburgh Steelers now have more hardware than any other team in history. The question is can this offensive line protect what is theirs?