The Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line is often looked at as the weak point of the team, and that they have won and reached Super Bowls in spite of them. This year, the line looks set to change all that.
What many national media commentators and analysts don't often discuss is the fact that last season, the Steelers finished the Super Bowl with one of their original starting linemen from the start of training camp.
The fact that Sean Kugler still managed to get decent play out of the bunch of misfits was incredible especially since it was his first year working with them. Throw into all that the fact that the team's best lineman throughout the year was a rookie and there were a lot of problems there last year.
Entering this season however, the team has very few line issues.
Last year by this time, it was unclear whether Justin Hartwig would hold off Maurkice Pouncey and remain the team's center while Willie Colon had already gone down with a season-ending injury.
Trai Essex's poor play didn't take longer than two weeks to drop him to the bench for second-year—and former tackle—Ramon Foster to step in.
The final piece to fall was Max Starks, as he landed on IR only a couple of weeks into the season.
This season, the Steelers have released both tackles that started the regular season in Flozell Adams and Starks. Starks' replacement, Jonathan Scott, is a reliable—if unspectacular—blindside protector who has worked extensively with Sean Kugler.
Scott followed Kugler to Pittsburgh from Buffalo where he filled a similar role as a backup who became a starter. Scott is an adequate tackle who doesn't excel in the running game but is a good pass protector.
The other tackle is the biggest position of improvement for the Steelers. While 35-year-old Flozell Adams held down the right hand side admirably last season, he didn't offer the same as the departed Willie Colon.
Colon was the Steelers' best offensive lineman before his injury. Over the years, he has developed into a good pass protector to go along with his crushing blocking in the running game. Both Colon and Adams could be considered maulers in the running game but Colon has a few things Adams does not.
With a lighter frame and quicker feet, Colon allows the team to run different types of running plays behind the right hand side.
While the Steelers used Adams effectively as a plow blowing defenders out of the way and running through the gaps he left, Colon will offer them more movement. This movement allows Colon to be a factor in the screen game for Rashard Mendenhall as well as getting to the second level with a greater burst to crush linebackers and defensive backs.
The return of Willie Colon gives the Steelers potentially four maulers on the offensive line to ram Rashard Mendenhall down defense's throats. With the seemingly endless talent in the team's receiving corp, the Steelers will definitely be airing it out this year but make no mistake about it, the offensive line is built to run the ball.
Chris Kemoeatu can best be described as a head case. Kemoeatu makes rash decisions and can be taken advantage of in pass protection because of his inconsistent awareness. However, when the Steelers unleash him in the running game, he is a wrecking ball.
Kemoeatu is key to the Steelers' staple run in their offense which sees him pull from the left guard position behind his center to blow open a hole on the opposite side of the line. He shows great agility as well as physicality in the trenches which is why he was so richly paid a few seasons back.
The biggest question mark on the Steelers line this year is the uncertainty at right guard.
However, the uncertainty isn't really a problem. The uncertainty is whether Tony Hills can overtake Ramon Foster and claim the starting position.
The worst case scenario in this situation is that Foster remains the starter. Foster is a reliable blocker in both the running game and the passing game. He is only average at both facets of the game but won't let anyone down when he is on the field.
Tony Hills was drafted out of Texas to be a left tackle but never made the transition. Being that he is the most athletic lineman the Steelers, have the team have tried to get him on the field. He started the most recent pre-season game against the Philadelphia Eagles and was incredible.
He only featured in a few series at guard before moving to tackle because of injuries but his physicality and athletic ability stood out from the start. Since it was just a pre-season game you have to take with a grain of salt the fact that he looked very comfortable, made no mistakes and acted as if he were a ten year veteran.
Hills' power, as well as his athletic ability in space, will make him another huge piece for Sean Kugler and subsequently Bruce Arians in the running game.
Going from the position with the most question marks to the one with absolutely none. Maurkice Pouncey proved to be the model of consistency throughout his rookie campaign that led him to an all-pro year. Pouncey has it all and should only get better with a season of experience under his belt.
Sean Kugler is probably the most important man for the Steelers' offensive line this year. Kugler has proven both in Buffalo and Pittsburgh that he can get the best out of limited pieces, but now that he actually has talent to work with you can't help but think he will improve them even further.
A second year in Kugler's system and a preseason and training camp learning from him once again should help the Steelers a lot. While they are a veteran football team overall, the offensive line is quite young with the oldest player(s)—Colon, Scott and Kemoeatu—being 28.
Provided the team can avoid the same lengthy list of injuries and alterations they went through last season, this offensive line should be monstrous for the coming season.
You can look at the statistics all you like but if you watch the team on the field you will see a group whose reputation suffers from the play of it's quarterback.
Although I'm sure they don't mind that.
Serial tweeting about everything and anything @Cianaf.