This next season will truly tell the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers; whether they have what it takes to get to another Superbowl. The Pittsburgh Steelers have young players in just about every position. Newly acquired rookies and free agents will help strengthen the running game ( Mendenhall, Moore, Russell) and the passing game (Holmes, Washington, Sweed). The Pittsburgh Steelers possess one the best QBs in the league in Big Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers also drafted Dennis Dixon to try to become an effective QB for later in his career. The Pittsburgh defense also has young players ready to contribute. Lamar Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Bruce Davis, Keyaron Fox, and Mike Humpal are all young LBs that have a great future ahead of them in Pittsburgh. James Harrison, an emerging elite LB, started and had a Pro-Bowl season. Though James Harrison isn't 25 anymore, he is still below 30 and will contribute for many years. The CBs are also young. Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, William Gay, and Anthony Madison are below 30 and will help the Steelers for many more seasons. The Steelers also have a good DB group, leading the way with the amazing Troy Polamalu. Ryan Clark has shown he can be good when healthy. Then, Anthony Smith and Ryan Mundy, two promising players bring up the rear.
However, these players' performance will hinge on the success of both the offensive line and the defensive line. Let me begin with the offensive line: The offensive line these past two years have been horrendous. Each season, they allowed 47 and 49 sacks respectively. Pitiful. There is no other word for it. The offensive line looked like this last season:
LT- Marvel Smith, Max Starks (to fill in for the injured Marvel Smith), Trai Essex (to fill in for the injured max Starks)
LG- Alan Faneca
C- Sean Mahan
RG- Kendall Simmons
RT- Willie Colon
What the Steelers should have learned from last season is that C Sean Mahan was a complete failure. Mahan continued to lose weight throughout the season, and his play sucked. They should have also learned that the LT position for the future is up for grabs. They should have seen from constant viewings of film that the present condition of the offensive line could not consistently (if ever) open up holes for the running game or pass protect consistently as well. The only positives learned from last season is that RT Willie Colon played all 17 games throughout the year. Now, the Steelers have taken steps to try rebuild and strengthen the offensive line. They have free agents and former backups that the Steelers feel can step in and improve the condition of the offensive line right away. Chris Kemoeatu, a 6th round pick in the 2006 draft, has been penciled in as the starter at LG. Also, free agent acquiree Justin Hartwig figures to be the starting C going into the 2008 season. Also, new battles have sprung for starting positions. Max Starks and Willie Colon figure to be fighting for the open RT starting spot. Kendall Simmons may be battling Darnell Stapleton and Sean Mahan for the starting RG position. Kendall Simmons has been hurt, and Darnell Stapleton has been effectively filling in for Simmons at RG.
The offensive line has been changed by my many different happenings. Here is my breakdown of how the offensive will hinge off the offensive line play:
LT- Marvel Smith is automatically the starter if he is healthy. But that is just it, Marvel Smith has not been healthy these last few seasons. Sure, he had corrective surgery on his back, but does that mean Marvel Smith will have a non-injury plagued season? Who knows? If Marvel Smith has health problems again, Max Starks will undoubtedly fill his shoes. Max Starks had two good games at LT last year. However, two games at starting LT does not mean he will be the answer down the road to the starting LT spot. Max Starks also sustained an injury last year. So, another question is: Can Max Starks hold up at LT? Late last year, Trai Essex started in the playoff game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he failed miserably. Essex gave up two sacks that game, and he completely looked lost on the 3rd and 6 sweep play. Trai Essex has career backup written all over him. The of the LT in Pittsburgh is up in the air. Marvel Smith needs to have a good season in order for him to get an extension. And for all the Steelers know, Max Starks could beat out Willie Colon for the starting RT spot. Trai Essex is not the answer. All of these factors leave the Steelers little insurance at LT for this season and for following seasons as well.
LG- Last year, LG Alan Faneca made it clear that he wanted top money. Fancea stayed to true to his word when he was not given the money he wanted. He bolted to the New York Jets, where he got a record deal for guards in the NFL. Now, Chris Kemoeatu has been penciled in as Faneca's replacement at LG. However, Chris Kemoeatu has never had much playing time during the season, and his durability has been an issue. He has been inured several times, and that was without starting or much playing time. The starting LG is as much up in the air at LT. Darnell Stapleton filled in for Kemoeatu while he was nursing injuries, when he was not in pads. Stapleton looked decent, but is presently the only other G backup other than Sean Mahan. No one in Steeler Nation wants to ever see Sean Mahan back on the starting line up. Nor shall he ever be, hopefully. All of these factors leave the Steelers little insurance at LG for this season and for following seasons as well.
C- Sean Mahan started for the Steelers at C this past season. He looked promising against weaker teams, but his true weakness (strength, etc.) was exposed once the harder teams beginning after the loss to the Cardinals showed how Sean Mahan was one of Tomlin's biggest mistakes. Then there is Darnell Stapleton, the mystery man in Pittsburgh. Stapleton was aquired as a UDFA last seaon, and spent most of the season injured. When he wasn't injured, he was the backup C. His role with the Steelers is currently up in the air. Stapleton has seen time in the recent OTAs all over the inside of the line. Another mystery man in Pittsburgh in recently acquired free agent C Justin Hartiwg. While many see him as the starting center, Sean Mahan continues to practice with the first squad. Not good signs. Everyone in Steeler Nation knows that Mahan is not the answer, but Stapleton and Hartwig have yet to prove to the coaching staff that they are the answers for the starting C job. All of these factors leave the Steelers with good insurance at C, but a very clouded state of "good insurance". The problem at C may extend beyond this season and for following seasons as well.
RG- Kendall Simmons started at RG all year long. However, Simmons continually allowed sacks his way all season long. Simmons was exposed for his lack of build, strength, etc. and showed opposing teams that he can be taken advantage of. Darnell Stapleton has showed promise so far, however, has seen no time at RG with pads. Head Coach Mike Tomlin has said that they might try Willie Colon at guard sometime this offseason, but has yet to do so. Willie Colon and Max Starks are currently the only RTs to have significant playing time over the past two years. I am not sure whether Tomlin and Company can afford to lose one of these players to compete at guard. Then of course, is the horrible Sean Mahan, who even looks to compete for the starting spot. This cannot happen. The day Sean Mahan starts for the Steelers again is Pittsburgh's doomsday. All of these factors give the Steelers little insurance at RG for this season and following seasons to come.
RT- Willie Colon started all 17 games for the Steelers last season. He was the only offensive lineman that played consistently. However, his consistent play was not very "great". He played well as a first year starter, but his pass protection and run blocking has to improve. Max Starks was handed the backup job, and "supposedly" there was no real evidence that led to his losing of the starting RT spot. So, this will be the most interesting camp battle to watch this year, outside of the Foote/Timmons battle. Getting back to the subject, neither of these two are great is pass protection and struggle with the speed rushers. The only difference is that Colon is better is slightly better at pass protection that Starks, but Starks' run blocking skills are way better than Colon's. Other than these two battling for the starting RT spot, there are complete scrubs competing for the backup RT spot. Both Jason Capizzi and Jeremy Parquet have shown that they are no where close to ever starting in the NFL (read my opinion on Trai Essex, in short, career backups if that). Jason Capizzi has shown that he is athletic, but must improve his fundamentals before ever cracking a starting line up.
The only rookie added to the offensive line in draft and free agency was OT Tony Hills. Tony Hills looks to be a backup, if not practice squad player. So far, he is still hampered by his college injury (not sure on specifics). As far as the Steelers know, Tony Hills may be still be injured going into camp. The addition of Hills has only broght another scrub to compete for a back up role, if his inkury allows.
Therefore, the offensive line hinges on critical performance this year from its linemen.
Now for the defensive line:
The defensive line has looked solid for many years up until last year. Aaron Smith got injured, and its exposed how weak the defensive line can look without a player of his caliber in the starting line up. When Smtih was in, the Pittsubrgh defense looked outstanding at times. When Smith was out, quite the opposite occurred. Little pressure was put on the QB. This is how the DL looked last year:
LDE- Aaron Smith, Nick Eason (to fill in for the injured Aaron Smith), Travis Kirschke (to fill in for the no show Nick Eason)
DT- Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke (to fill in for the constantly gassed Casey Hampton or be the second DT)
RDE- Brett Keisel
What the Steelers learned from last season is that they have no depth at all after the starting line up other than DT. Nick Eason was just absolutely horrible. Travis Kirschke was dependable, even though he was not very effective. The Steelers also have an injury prone Ryan McBean, who could not contribute because he was lost to an injury that ended his season. To this day, he has seen no practice time because he is still wearing his boot. The Steelers completely ignored their second biggest need throughout the 2008 NFL Draft, passing on opportunities to get quality defensive line because the Front Office and the Coaches did not want to "reach" on a defensive lineman. After the draft, the Steelers were able to nab top Divison II defensive linemen such as Kyle Clements, Jordan Reffet, and Martavius Prince. The Steelers tried to sign Anthony McFarland, but McFarland failed his physical. McFarland tried out again yesterday (June 4th), but so far no word has come from his private tryout. So that leaves Pittsburgh literally the exact same group to play this year. This same group is getting up in age as well. Smith will be 33, Keisel 31, Hampton 31, Hoke 31, and Kirschke 34. The only youth the Steelers have are in an unproven Ryan McBean and a horrible Nick Eason.
The defensive line has not been changed at all. Here is my breakdown of how the defensive line will hinge off the deffensive line play:
LDE- Aaron Smith automatically the starter if healthy. He has already had surgery and is already practicing again, so hopefully his health will not be an issue. However, Aaron Smith's injury could leave his biceps a little torn as the season progresses. Let Steeler Nation only hope that he does not sustain injury. Behind Aaron Smith are the backups Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason. Kirschke has shown that he is worth a while, he can at least hold blocks unlike his teammate Nick Eason. Eason has no chance to ever be starting for any team in the NFL. Nick Eason is way to weak, undersized, and many other things that will prevent him from being nothing more than a career backup. Therefore, if Aaron Smith does not start for any reason, the Steelers have little to no insurance at LDE for this season and for following season to come.
DT- Casey Hampton was able to start all 17 games for the Steelers last year. However, he was unable to finsih most games. Casey Hampton was very overweight last season, and often he could not stay in the game for a full defensive series. Pittsburgh's 2nd DT Chris Hoke was at least in shape, and could finish for the gassed Hampton. These two provide a decent depth in a 3-4 defensive scheme. On another positive note, UDFA Kyle Clements has worked his way into the mix as a backup DT. Hopefully the rookie can provide youth to an aging pass rush. However, if Casey Hampton cannot maintain his weight, the Steelers have little insurance for this next season and following seasons.
RDE- Brett Keisel was another defensive lineman that was able to start all 17 games for the Steelers. The good news about Keisel is that he is about as healthy as a DE can get. The only problem is that he does not have elite strength to be able to pressure the QB. I like to refer Keisel as "Stalemate Keisel" because he rarely gets sacks, but is able hold blocks and let the LBs get the tackles. Let Steeler Nation only hope that he does not sustain injury. Behind Brett Keisel are the backups Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason. Kirschke has shown that he is worth a while, he can at least hold blocks unlike his teammate Nick Eason. Eason has no chance to ever be starting for any team in the NFL. Nick Eason is way to weak, undersized, and many other things that will prevent him from being nothing more than a career backup. Therefore, if Aaron Smith does not start for any reason, the Steelers have little to no insurance at RDE for this season and for following season to come.
The only rookies added to the group were UDFAs Kyle Clements, Martavius Prince, and Jordan Reffet. These rookies are the only hopes of replacing Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke. These rookies may make some impact if one of them is to beat out Eason or Kirschke as a situational pass rusher. However, none of them will sufficient playing time, just like Eason and Kirschke did before the injury occurred to Aaron Smith.
Therefore, the deffensive line hinges on critical performance this year from its linemen.
The undeniable fact about the Steelers draft class from next year will probably be heavily filled with offensive and defensive linemen. Both trenches may need serious work if neither line is consistent throughout the 2008 season. In my honest humble opinion, I could easily see Pittsburgh target a OT, OG, and two DL in any order in the first four rounds. The Pittsburgh Steelers need wonders from it offensive and defensive line this year, and this season and following seasons will define how the both trenches need to be refortified.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!