Over the past three years, the Steelers' offensive line's play has been, well, offensive. It hasn't struggled with inconsistency—it has been consistently horrible.
So, to fix the problem, the Steelers signed several players in free agency and used their top pick on an offensive lineman.
Oh, I’m sorry. What I meant to say was that they signed no free agents and drafted guard Kraig Urbik. While Urbik is a good prospect, he is probably not a day one starter. This means that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be playing behind the same guys as last season.
I don’t think it is fair to put all the blame on the linemen. Big Ben gets some of the blame for holding on to the ball longer than he should. However, this is negated by the number of sacks that Roethlisberger avoids, which may very well be higher than the number for which he's responsible.
I place a lot of the blame on two people: offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and offensive line coach Larry Zierlein.
This pair uses a scheme that does not play to the strengths of the team's linemen and it has been stubborn when it comes to getting new players.
The two offensive geniuses apparently want to go into comedy, because they recently made a statement that Willie Colon was the Steelers' best offensive lineman last season. While Colon is a decent player, he is out of position at right tackle, and in the current scheme, he is far from the team’s best lineman.
Arians also insists on calling plays that would take far too long to develop with an elite line, much less a below average one.
He also seems to fail to realize the damage that a quick slant can do in the hands of a player like Santonio Holmes and how that helps to slow down an opponent's pass rush.
However, there is reason to have hope with the current group of players. Maybe they will gel this season and will be better because of it. I feel that the more realistic way of improving the line would be to re-shuffle it.
Here is the current projected offensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 2009:
Left Tackle: Max Starks
Starks was a player that stepped up when he had his number called last season. He is by no means a top left tackle in the NFL, but at the same time he is not awful either.
He is a solid player, nothing more. If he would eventually be shifted back to his more ideal position of right tackle, I think he could become one of the best in the league.
He is a much better run blocker than a pass protector, but his 6'8" frame allows him to slow down pass rushers.
Definitely not the best, but he is far from the worst and is not a real liability.
Left Guard: Chris Kemoeatu
Kemoeatu did some good things in his first year as a full-time starter.
He did a solid job of drive blocking for the most part, and he effectively used his massive 6'3", 344-pound frame against the string nose tackles that the team faced last year.
Unfortunately, he also did a fair share of not-so-stellar things.
He struggled at times with his pass blocking assignments and he had trouble pulling to lead rushing plays.
Center: Justin Hartwig
Hartwig was brought in as a free agent last year, and he was a huge upgrade over Sean Mahan.
Although he was credited as giving up the most sacks for a center last season, that number is probably not totally accurate due to the poor guard play on either side of him.
He held his own against some tough nose tackles, and this resulted in the center of the pocket not getting collapsed as often as when Mahan occupied the position.
The only worry about Hartwig is that he has historically been injury prone, and if that is the case either Darnell Stapleton or A.Q. Shipley would have to step up to the plate and make his case to be the Steelers' center of the future.
Right Guard: Trai Essex
Essex has been solid in his four career starts at left tackle. This season, he seems poised to take the starting right guard gig from Stapleton.
Essex is good at both run blocking and pass protection, and he should bring more strength to the position than Stapleton did.
Right Tackle: Willie Colon
Colon has talent and is a driven, competitive player.
Despite this, his short arms reduce his ability to effectively play right tackle. He is one of the smallest (if not, the shortest) right tackles in the NFL at 6'3". He is at a disadvantage against speed rushers because he has a limited reach.
One positive about him is that he is, by all accounts, a great team leader. Arians believes that he is the team's best lineman, but in my opinion that is certainly not true in the current scheme.
Here is the ideal 2009 offensive line, in my opinion:
Left Tackle: Max Starks (same position, see above)
Left Guard: Willie Colon
While Colon lacks the ideal size to play right tackle, he is perfectly sized for a left guard. He has the ability to pull effectively, which is a staple of this position. His fiery passion and toughness should also translate extremely well if he is played at guard.
Another huge benefit is that his weaknesses with pass blocking would be masked with players on either side of him. This prevents speed rushers from escaping his reach, and at left guard, he could actually be the best player on the Steelers' offensive line.
Center: Justin Hartwig (same position, see above)
Right Guard: Chris Kemoeatu
When Kemoeatu was a second-year player, he got two starts in the place of an injured Kendall Simmons, and he did well.
Traditionally, the right guard is the less mobile and more powerful of the two guard slots. Kemoeatu definitely fits the bill.
Also, Kemoeatu has been a right guard in the past, and he is more used to picking up his pass blocking assignments on that side of the field. He would be a major asset opening up lanes for the running backs.
He is under contract for five more years, so he could be an important contributor for several more years.
Right Tackle: Trai Essex
Essex currently has four starts under his belt, and all of them have been at left tackle.
He has shown the coaching staff that he has the ability to play on the right side, and he would be a good fit at right tackle. He has nice size for the position at 6'4" and 324 pounds, and he would be a huge upgrade in pass protection over Colon. He has relatively long arms, which is also a huge asset.
He has the ability to be one of the better right tackles in the league, and he should only improve with additional playing time.
In summary, there are players available to keep Big Ben safe and happy this coming season. If they are shifted around, it would allow for them to maximize their strengths and to mask their weaknesses.
Winning starts in the trenches, and if the players on the roster are used properly, it would lay a foundation for success for the next five to 10 years.
The only starter over 27 is Hartwig, and there are currently two centers that have the potential to take over for him. Urbik also has the ability to take over a guard spot at some point in the future.
There is hope, Steeler Nation. Now it's just up to the coaches to put the pieces together.
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