The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t been to three Super Bowls in the past six years because it is their birthright, although some fans would like to believe that.
The fact is that the Steelers have a deep roster with exceptional talent at many of the starting positions.
Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin put together a starting lineup consisting of a star players and role players. The end result: a formula for winning.
As Pittsburgh’s offense continues to evolve from its smashmouth roots to a high-flying yet balanced attack, the importance of the starters has shifted.
Here is a look at the how the projected 2011 offensive starters rank.
Immediately you notice that with Matt Spaeth on this list, there are two tight ends listed as starters.
Along with Heath Miller, Spaeth is more often than not in the starting lineup as a part of Bruce Arians’ two-tight-end offense.
Why does Spaeth rank so low on this list? He simply is not very productive. Even replacing an injured Miller in one game, Spaeth was only able to finish the year with nine receptions.
In fact, in three of his four seasons Spaeth has finished with lower than 10 receptions and only once in his career has he finished a season with more than one touchdown, which happened to be his rookie year when he had three.
Obviously if Spaeth isn’t much of a receiving target, despite his 6’9” height, he should be a top notch blocker?
Not quite. Spaeth is an average to below-average blocker, which hurts the Steelers because they ask their tight ends to stay in and help their tackles in pass protection.
Spaeth serves his role on the team, but he is the least valuable offensive starter.
Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky and Trai Essex are grouped together because they all saw time at right guard at some point this season, whether it was due to injury or ineffectiveness.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have a true starting right guard on the roster which is why we saw so many players at the position last season.
Essex profiles as more of a backup, who can play every position along the line except center. In five starts last season, he was penalized five times.
Legursky is a center who saw time at guard because he is fairly talented, though limited. However, he is undersized and could easily be moved by larger defensive linemen, which are aplenty in the AFC North. As a result, he had three holding penalties in three starts.
Pittsburgh felt that the much larger Foster would be a better match up against massive defensive tackles. In ways he was, but he still committed four penalties in eight starts and was victimized for six sacks.
Foster will likely compete with Legursky to earn the starting job, but regardless, it will still be the weakest spot along the offensive line.
Though he is more talented than the right guards, Chris Kemoeatu’s performance is not much better on the left side.
Over the course of the season, Kemoeatu had six penalties, including two false starts and four holding. He was credited for allowing four and a half sacks as well.
Kemoeatu also lost his head in the playoffs, taking a terrible personal foul penalty by launching himself into a defender well after Rashard Mendenhall scored a touchdown.
That is inexcusable for veterans.
The bigger moment, however, came in the Super Bowl when Kemoeatu allowed a defensive lineman from the Packers to pressure Roethlisberger into throwing a pick six.
Tackle may be the premium position along the offensive line, but the Steelers have long been in need of an upgrade at guard.
Shifting back to the right side of the line, Flozell Adams finds himself in the eighth spot.
This isn’t all too bad for Adams who signed with the Steelers as a free agent last offseason. He then came into camp and switched from left to right tackle.
Adams had a slow start to training camp and struggled during the preseason, but as he got comfortable, he provided the team with some stability.
By no means was Adams a Pro Bowler on the outside, but when he got locked down on a defender, it was over. He helped the team run the ball to the right side and matched up well against non-speed rushers.
Adams did have five penalties and allowed six and a half sacks.
Assuming he returns, and not Willie Colon, Adams will be a nice stopgap for the right tackle position. Third-round draft choice, Marcus Gilbert, could challenge for this spot in a year or two.
Continuing with a theme, Max Starks, who will be coming off of an injury, is the fourth offensive lineman near the bottom of the offensive starters list.
Starks plays the most important position on the offensive line and is actually an average to above-average tackle, yet still has his struggles.
Starks is a massive body who can be slow-footed against speed rushers, but will be a significant upgrade over last year’s replacement Jonathan Scott.
Ending the streak of offensive linemen is Hines Ward.
As a team leader, Ward is second to none and he is still a very productive receiver. However, at this point of his career, he is no longer the top option and he shouldn’t be. That speaks for the Steelers' quality depth at the skill positions.
Ward’s 59 receptions for 755 yards were his lowest totals since 2000. Is he slowing down? Maybe. But these numbers are more likely a product of Ben Roethlisberger being suspended for the first four games of the season and the emergence of Mike Wallace.
Ward figures to be a vital part of the offense and a dangerous threat across the middle while in the red zone. His role, though, may be reduced with young receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown flashing potential last season.
After a stellar 2009 season in which he had 76 receptions for 789 yards, big things were expected from Heath Miller last season.
Instead, he went back to being an afterthought in the Steelers offense and finished with only 42 receptions for 512 yards and a career-low two touchdowns.
A down season doesn’t mean there is a lack of talent but rather that Miller is once again being underutilized.
If Arians can once again use Miller as a receiving threat over the middle, things could open up on the outside for Wallace.
Miller will likely be used as a blocker as well. Not at the level that Mark Bruener was in his Steelers days, Miller is still above average and is depended upon to assist the tackles in passing situations.
Rashard Mendenhall is on the verge of becoming one of the top running backs in the league, but he still has some work to do.
Last season Mendenhall progressed, rushing for 1273 yards and 13 touchdowns, but only managed 3.9 yards per carry. That number will have to improve this season.
Hopefully with a healthy offensive line, those numbers will improve this season. If they do, Pittsburgh will once again be near or at the top of the AFC.
After running tentatively for much of last season, Mendenhall stepped up his game in December and in the playoffs where he was a much more physical runner. With this style, he will have to protect the ball.
Mendenhall was having an excellent Super Bowl before a momentum-killing fumble that virtually ended the Steelers' chances. Maybe this will drive him this season.
It would also be great to see Arians and Roethlisberger reach into Mendenhall’s untapped receiving potential.
Mendenhall has soft hands and excellent moves in the open field if ever given the opportunity to catch the ball out of the backfield.
To call Maurkice Pouncey’s rookie season excellent would be an understatement.
Pouncey stepped right in and forced the coaching staff to give him the starting job at center where he would go on to establish himself as one of the top three centers in the game already.
During the regular season, Pouncey had only one penalty and allowed three sacks. He carried himself like a 10-year veteran and was a rock in the center of the Steelers' line.
Pouncey, along with offensive line coach Sean Kugler, have the line going in the right direction. With his presence in the middle, everyone around him became better as he solidified what had previously been the weak link along the offensive line.
As Pouncey enters his second year, expect another big season as he continues to establish himself as one of the league’s best.
Mike Wallace is the AFC’s best deep threat and is only second to DeSean Jackson as the NFL’s most dangerous receiver.
In his second year, Wallace exploded with 1257 yards with an impressive 21.0 yards per reception. He also had 10 touchdowns in the season.
Wallace proved that his rookie year was no fluke as he was impossible for any defensive back to cover one-on-one. Even with a 10-yard cushion, Wallace would run with a cornerback and at the last moment break away to make the big play.
As the season went on, Wallace showed that he is developing an all-around game as well with his willingness to go over the middle, and is demonstrating the ability to turn a short reception into a big play.
You cannot teach speed and Wallace has it, so much that it is virtually impossible to defend making him the Steelers second best offensive player.
There is no question that Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers best offensive player.
The two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback in three appearances has established himself as one of the best players in the league, let alone quarterback, regardless of what the NFL Network’s Top 100 list says.
In only 12 games last season, Roethlisberger threw for 3200 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has only completed less than 60 percent of his passes twice in his career and has never thrown for lower than 7.0 yards per completion.
More importantly, when Roethlisberger is under center, the Steelers win.
Roethlisberger has a 69 and 29 career record in the regular season and is even better in the playoffs with a 10 and 3 record.
Following his off-field issues last season, Roethlisberger rededicated himself to improving as a person, teammate and player and that showed last season, which may have been his best.
There is no reason to think that there isn’t more to come from Roethlisberger who certainly wants to improve his image, but also win championships.
He is one of the most exciting and talented quarterbacks, a perennial winner, one of the most clutch performers in the league and, without a doubt, the best offensive player on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
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