Much of the Pittsburgh Steelers success this season will depend upon the offensive line.
A unit that has struggled over the past several seasons looked to be on the rebound with the addition of first-round draft choice Maurkice Pouncey.
However, the boost to the offensive line had a setback with the season-ending Achilles tendon injury to starting right tackle Willie Colon.
Pittsburgh will now need to make adjustments to their line to account for this loss.
The performance of whoever takes over at right tackle could have huge implications on the success of the Steelers offense.
Pittsburgh’s goal was to improve their ground game this season, and this became particularly important after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four-to-six games of the season.
Now without one of their best run blockers, Pittsburgh will look to swingmen Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott to fill the void, though a free agent veteran may also be in the mix.
This will not be the only camp battle.
Pouncey could still potentially compete at center, but he will definitely be in the mix at right guard against Essex (who may be used exclusively at right tackle now), Ramon Foster, and Kraig Urbik.
The group that the Steelers needed to improve the most will be the one in the most flux entering training camp.
The left side of the line is set and will be greatly depended on for the Steelers offense.
Max Starks and Chris Kemoeautu are both veterans with Super Bowl experience. They are also both huge, combining to weigh 690 pounds. For Pittsburgh to be successful, they will have to establish the run behind left side.
Justin Hartwig will once again start at center and will likely line up beside first-round draft choice Pouncey.
It will be interesting how Pouncey transitions from a college offense that ran primarily out of the shotgun to the Steelers offense.
Though he will be competing for the starting right guard job, he should still see time as a center. Keep a close eye on the ball exchange when the quarterback is under center.
As an effective run and pass blocker, Pouncey will be tested in camp against some of the best defensive linemen in the league. Can he hold his own against the starters in team and individual drills?
Right tackle is too early to call at this point. This should be the best camp battle, but also the most important.
Willie Colon was probably the Steelers’ best lineman last season and his replacement will come down to the versatile Trai Essex and free agent acquisition Jonathan Scott.
These two enter the battle on a level playing field.
Trai Essex has been the Steelers top swingman on the offensive line for years and has starting experience at both tackle and guard.
After winning the starting right guard position last season, Essex will either end up as the starting right tackle or top backup this year. Being a veteran of the Steelers, he may hold a slight edge over Scott.
However, Scott previously played for new offensive line coach Sean Kugler in Buffalo.
Last season, he started eight games for a Bills line that experienced a lot of injuries, and Scott had injury problems himself.
Scott’s familiarity with Kugler’s scheme could give him the advantage.
Given some of the past camp battles, expect the lineman who sees time the majority of the time with the first team entering the first preseason game to be the starter. This will likely be a quick decision so the line can begin to gel before the regular season starts.
What the Steelers lack in quality, they have in quantity on the offensive line.
Mike Tomlin is big on position versatility, which doesn’t necessarily always serve the team well, but it can help when there are injury issues.
This would make Scott or Essex the top backup as both players can play a variety of positions on the line.
Last year’s undrafted surprise, Ramon Foster, will also be a top backup, likely on the interior line.
While he may get an opportunity to compete at right tackle, given his inexperience, Foster should continue to focus at right guard. If he doesn’t win a starting role, his positional flexibility will earn him a roster spot and mean that he suits up on game days.
The Steelers often bring in an extra lineman on goal line and short yardage situations. Foster may earn this role.
In the popular goal line drills, it will be interesting to see if the coaches bring in an extra lineman and if they do, will it be Essex, Scott, or Foster.
Last year’s third-round pick, Kraig Urbik, will be expected to take a big jump forward in his development.
Urbik struggled in one-on-one drills last camp, but was more effective when playing his position. If he can take a step forward, he can be a step closer to earning a starting role. Ideally, if he could take over at right guard next season when Pouncey shifts to center, the Steelers would have the foundation to a solid line.
Though a high draft pick, Urbik will still have to perform if he wants to make the roster. The individual blocking drills are an area to watch him to see his improvement as a blocker.
The final offensive line spot may go to Tony Hills, a fourth-round choice of the Steelers in 2008.
Hills has been a disappointment over his brief career so far, not showing the potential to be a valuable backup, let alone a starter.
However, Colon is out for the season with an injured Achilles and rookie Chris Scott is out for several months with a hurt foot. This opens up a roster spot and takes away one more challenger. With the lack of depth at tackle, Hills may luck out and make the roster one more season.
He should not be handed a roster spot though. Hills will have to display an improved blocking ability to prove that he is worth keeping.
Offensive Line—The Rest
Doug Legursky is the only other offensive lineman of note, and he will be the victim of a numbers game. And while he will start at right guard, Pittsburgh’s center of the future, Pouncey, can shift over if needed.
Legursky saw only limited action last season as a backup center and guard. He is rather undersized at only 6'1'', 315 pounds, and will really have to make an impression if he wants to make the roster.
An interesting note: Legursky, not Pouncey, ran with the first team when Hartwig was out during OTAs. If he gets reps with the second team offense later this summer, Legursky may sneak his way onto the roster as an interior backup.
Things may also change if the Steelers decide to bring in a veteran tackle to compete with Essex and Scott.
Making this move would likely bump Hills off the roster and put both Scott and Essex into reserve roles.
Young linemen Dorian Brooks and Kyle Jolly will not make the roster and will be used to work with the third team.
For full training camp coverage, check out these previous Training Camp Previews: