So far we have covered the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, now it is time to turn our attention to the most criticized position, the Offensive Line.
It's hard to believe a defending Super Bowl champion with so many starters returning could have any weaknesses, but the Pittsburgh Steelers do. Without a question, the Steelers had the worst offensive line of any Super Bowl champion in history. Don't believe us? Check out the stats.
Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons were let go, and not one lineman was signed in free agency. The draft produced just two picks, Wisconsin guard, Kraig Urbik, was tabbed in the third round and Penn State center A.Q. Shipley was a seventh round selection. Only Urbik has a shot to earn a starting position as Shipley will need time to develop.
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 they had was athleticism and pass protection.
Steelers Position Breakdown of the Offensive Line
LT - Max Starks - Starks is among the tallest NFL players, standing at 6'8" and 340 pounds. He is probably never going to be a tackle in the image of Tunch Illkin or Leon Searcy, but he is a solid, versatile starter.
Starks has bounced in and out of the starting line up the last few seasons but played well enough in 2008 to earn the franchise tag a second year in a row.
At the very least, Starks will give their line some stability and franchising him buys Pittsburgh time to draft and develop other offensive lineman or to work out a long term contract with him. Starks is penciled in as the starting LT but will need to play well in camp to fend of Tony Hills and keep the job.
LG - Chris Kemoeatu - Chris Kemoeatu joined the Steelers in 2005 as a sixth round pick out of Utah. Listed at 6’3” and 344 pounds. Since being drafted he has captivated the imaginations of Steelers fans who are devotees of the team’s Smash Mouth identity. Though has yet to live up to the hype.
It’s unfair to single out Kemoeatu for blame, but the Steelers had a lot of difficulty punching at the goal line in the latter half of the year, and much of that difficulty was due to the run blocking from the interior lineman. While the Steelers definitely could do worse than Kemoeatu at guard, he is certainly not a player you break the bank for.
Center - Justin Hartwig - Signed to sure up the center position at the start of the 2008 season, Hartwig easily earned the starting job and allowed the Steelers to trade the undersized Sean Mahan to free up needed cap space. His play at the position was an upgrade but still not up to Steelers standards.
Hartwig enters the final season of his contract in 2009 and with Darnell Stapleton and the rookie A.Q. Shipley on the roster will need to improve to get re-signed by Pittsburgh.
At 6'4 and 312 lbs., Hartwig has the size to play the position and hold up against the Sean Rogers of the NFL, but will need to improve his run blocking to earn his keep in 2009 or beyond.
RG - Darnell Stapleton -Originally was signed as an un-drafted free agent by the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to the 2007 season. After the trade of Sean Mahan, Darnell became the backup center for the 2008 season.
Due to necessity, after starting guard Kendall Simmons was placed on Injured Reserve after a Monday Night game against the Baltimore Ravens, he became the starter for the rest of the 2008 season.
As a starter for the 2008 AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, Darnell joins teammates Willie Parker and James Harrison on the list of impact non-drafted players in the Kevin Colbert era.
Our personally opinion here at Pittsburgh Blitz is that Darnell was an upgrade to Simmons and his play, though not perfect, helped to shore up the OL down the stretch and into the playoffs and Super Bowl. We are eager to see how he improves his second year as a starter. That is if he can hold off Kraig Urbik for the job this summer.
RT - Willie Colon - Was originally selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fourth round (131st overall) in the 2006 NFL Draft. He started the first two games of his career in Weeks 16 and 17 of the 2006 season, replacing an injured Max Starks, and in early 2007 team activities has replaced Starks as the 1st-team right tackle for the team.
There has been rumors the past few years that Willie Colon should move to guard as another tackle, such as Max Starks or Trai Essex could play right tackle.
The rumors were founded mainly because of Colon's unspectacular pass protection, as well as his size—6'3" is an ideal guard size, not a tackle size. However, Mike Tomlin and other members of the Steelers organization have often dispelled such rumors.
Technically the teams only offensive linemen listed on the roster at RT, Colon could get challenged for the job by Tony Hills this summer. We look for this to be one of the more interesting camp battles, as here at Pittsburgh Blitz we are not big Willie Colon fans, at least not with him at RT. A move to RG or LG would suit him better in our opinion.
Key Role Players:
LT - Jason Capizzi -At 6-9, 315 pounds, Jason Capizzi looks big, even by NFL standards, as he walks around the locker room of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has the size and pedigree to play a key back up role for the Steelers in 2009. Capizzi signed with the Steelers as an un-drafted free agent from IUP.
The Gibsonia native, who started his college career at Pitt, has spent time last season on practice squad and was elevated to the 53 man roster when Marvel Smith was put on IR.
Here at Pittsburgh Blitz we like Capizzi's potential and feel he could be a surprise for the team this year once camp opens. He already has the eye of the coaches but lacks the experience needed to crack the starting lineup. That won't stop him from making the final cut and getting a job as a key back up for the Steelers though.
LT - Tony Hills - Fundamentally sound left tackle who is at his best as a pass-protector. Blocks with good pad level, sets with a wide base, and makes outstanding use of body positioning as well as blocking angles.
Slides out off the edge, stays square, and nicely works his hands throughout the play. Shows the ability to adjust and jolts defenders with good hand-punch. Fights hard until the whistle blows.
Hills has one negative though, his history of staying healthy is not the best. Suffering numerous injuries in both high school and college. Once considered a potential first rounder, Hills slipped to the fourth round and the Pittsburgh Steelers due to those set backs.
His slide in the draft could be a blessing in disguise though as he has the potential to grow into a quality starter at LT or RT for the team and could be a dark horse in the camp battles this season.
RG - Kraig Urbik - Selected in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft, Urbik will get a chance to compete for Darnell Stapleton's starting job at right guard. If he does not start, Urbik should become the top backup guard and dress for games along with Trai Essex as the two backup linemen on Sundays.
RG - Trai Essex - During the off-season Essex visited the Tennessee Titans but came back home to sign a two-year deal worth $2 million. The fifth-year veteran out of Northwestern was given a signing bonus of $500,000 by the team.
He can play four different positions and will likely start camp as the No. 2 left tackle behind Max Starks but could be involved in a camp battle with Kraig Urbik for that role on the team.
A.Q. Shipley - A Penn State center who grew up in Moon Township, was one of their two seventh-round picks selected by the Steelers in the 2009 NFL draft. Shipley is a solid center, but has short arms, which may limit him from playing guard in the NFL.
The Steelers staff seem very high on Shipley and he has the perfect attitude for the team. Look for Shipley to land on the practice squad for a year then crack the 53 man roster in 2010.
Jeremy Parquet - At 6-6, 321 lbs., Parquet has the tangibles to play in the NFL. Thus far in his career Jeremy has been nothing more then A practice squad member of the Chiefs, Rams and now the Steelers. We do not anticipate that changing this season and look for Parquet to continue to be a practice dummy in 2010.
Hope you got a day job list:
Doug Legursky - Signed as a rookie free agent by the Steelers on April 28, 2007 and made the practice squad that season. He has remained at that status since but could be cut this time around with the addition of A.Q. Shipley to the team. We so no need for two centers to be on the practice squad this season and neither will the Steelers.
Ramon Foster - Signed by the Steelers as an un-drafted free agent on April 27, 2008. Foster was a three-year starter who earned Freshman All-SEC honors in 2005 after stepping in at left guard and right tackle due to injuries.
Primarily started at right tackle the past three seasons for Tennessee and was named to the ESPN Mark May's 2007 "MayDay Team" after playing with a broken thumb throughout most of his junior season. Foster played in a career total of 44 games and was four-year letterman in college.
Foster has plenty of potential, but may be out in the cold due to the numbers game and lack of NFL experience. He could be a surprise and make the practice dummies, and here at Pittsburgh blitz we are rooting for him to due just that. Not sure it will happen though.
Training Camp Battles:
Starting Right Guard: Darnell Stapleton vs Kraig Urbik
Darnell Stapleton was the starter this previous season, but with issues consistently surrounding the Steelers offensive line he shouldn't feel too comfortable. Urbik is a highly touted rookie who could very well end up winning this job.
Urbik was a tackle at Wisconsin, but he struggles in space so will get bumped inside. His size and the ability to be a mauler in the running game fits the mentality of the Steelers organization perfectly.
Many fans are already on Urbik's side in this battle and as long as he continues to show the work ethic and intelligence that he had while he was a Badger, he should get the edge entering the season.
Look for a heated battle for this position but in the end, Stapleton will prove to be a NFL worthy guard and win the starter role for the Steelers.
Well that’s the lowdown on the offensive line, thanks for reading and your comments are always welcome. Let us know what you think.
*Check back soon for the sixth edition of this nine part series. Next up we will begin the defensive breakdown and the Cornerbacks.