This is the fifth in a series of articles exploring each position and the battles going on in Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and the preseason. Today we look at the offensive line.
If the defending champs have a question mark, it's here.
The offensive line gave up the most sacks of any Super Bowl champion, 58 counting the playoffs. If the Steelers want to return to defend their crown, that number must be reduced.
To expect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to stay upright without dropping the sack total is overly optimistic. Big Ben has already suffered a minor ankle injury after being rolled up on in practice. Lucky for Pittsburgh, he's a fast healer.
The problems extended to the ground game as well. The Steelers rushing attack was near the bottom of the league last season, albeit due to key injuries in the backfield.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was hoping the line would improve with a season under their belt and the reps they'd get in camp. That scenario never happened.
Any hope of continuity ended when starting RG Darnell Stapleton went down the first week of camp with a knee injury and Justin Hartwig couldn't practice after fracturing his toe.
Hartwig is back, but the high hopes Stapleton had of getting back in time for the regular season ended when he was put on injured reserve today, ending his 2009 campaign.
The good news for the Steelers is they have a capable replacement in Trai Essex, who moves over from right tackle to guard. Essex doesn't have the beef of Stapleton, but he's an experienced veteran, versatile, and more athletic.
The Stapleton injury also gave second-year pro Doug Legursky much-needed work in camp. Tomlin likes his lineman to be "position flexible," meaning they can play more than one position on the line. Legursky improved his stock by seeing action at center and guard.
With that, here's a position-by-position look at the Pittsburgh offensive line:
Hartwig is back healthy and anchoring the offensive line. He's a smart, capable veteran who relies more on technique and smarts than brute force. He's the quarterback of this line.
Legursky played well enough in the preseason to earn the roster spot as Hartwig's backup. Stapleton was listed as the backup center on the depth chart. The job now falls to Legursky.
Former Penn State star A.Q. Shipley will most likely be placed on the practice squad. Legursky's ability to play two positions gives him the edge over Shipley.
The starters are set with Chris Kemoeatu on the left side and Essex on the right. Essex has had a great preseason, but Kemoeatu has been a little shaky. Bills DT Kyle Williams had his way with the fifth-year pro last Saturday, one of the only down moments for Pittsburgh in the 17-0 victory. Kemoeatu needs to tighten up his play for the line to prosper.
Third-round pick Kraig Urbik will be at one backup spot. He's been inconsistent like most rookies are, but Tomlin is willing to give him a year to learn, get stronger, and build his confidence up.
With Stapleton out, look for Ramon Foster to grab a roster spot. The undrafted rookie was moved from tackle to guard in camp and shined. He needs development time, but he could end up being a nice find for Pittsburgh.
RT Willie Colon has had a great preseason, especially in run blocking. Put him with LT Max Starks and the Steelers have a solid 1-2 combo at tackle.
The duo must stay healthy for Pittsburgh to thrive, because the depth at tackle is thin.
Second-year player Tony Hills is getting better and better and he'll be the main backup. The Steelers will keep nine linemen and if Foster isn't the one, the final roster spot will go to either Jason Capizzi or Jeremy Parquet.
Despite the sacks given up last season, the line was still good enough to win a Super Bowl. With another year together this unit should be much better. If they can limit the sacks and keep Big Ben healthy, a deep title run is in the cards.