Steelers Need Not Rush Back Starks Or Hampton As Options Are Plenty
Yesterday was an incredible win by the Steelers and it might end up being one of the most significant wins of the season when we get to December. Time will of course tell, but the Falcons were no push over on both sides of the ball and with starting Ben Roethlisberger out the first four games, the Steelers need to go only .500 or better to be in good shape upon his return. The Sunday win is the first of two needed wins in the four game stretch, but was also a costly one as starting left tackle Max Starks went down with a serious high ankle sprain and nose tackle Casey Hampton injured his hamstring and never returned. Both Starks and Hampton surely will miss the game next week versus the Tennessee Titans and could indeed be sidelined longer than that. The worst thing the Steelers can do is to rush both players back too early and running the risk of them aggravating them and missing even more time. The Steelers need just one win out of the next 3 games and have the reserves to accomplish that task.
Jonathan Scott replaced Starks at left tackle on Sunday and did an admirable job. Outside of one early rush by Falcons defensive end John Abraham, Scott played above the line the rest of the way. As long as Scott does not let ends get hands on him, he seems to do well. You can tell offensive line coach Sean Kugler brought him over with him from Buffalo as he is a mauler and better than average fighter with his hands. Going into the week two against Tennessee, I think Scott will get a shot at being the first man up to replace Starks. If not Scott, the Steelers have several other options as well. Tony Hills progressed in the preseason, but was one of the two linemen inactive on Sunday. Hills does not have the position flexibility that Scott has nor the game experience. In truth, we still do not know what Hills brings to the table against top line competition. Regardless, he is an option. Two other outside options would be to move Flozell Adams back to his native spot of left tackle and let Scott open at right tackle in his place, where Scott worked most of the preseason. Adams has worked so hard on converting to the right side though, that I would not want to interrupt the progress he has made so far, plus it would shake up the line continuity even more than what has been done so far. Another outside choice is to move right guard Trai Essex over to left tackle where he has played in the past. Essex is the weakest link on the line though and I do not think you want to give him responsibility of protecting the blind side of the quarterback with one weeks notice. I think Scott and Hills have the best shot with the early edge to Scott.
As far as a Hampton replacement, veteran Chris Hoke did a stellar job replacing Big Snack when he exited the game and Ziggy Hood has position flexibility to fill in behind Hoke as well. According to training camp reports, Hood received some extended work over the nose this past Summer. There is no true 3rd nose tackle on the roster behind Hampton and Hoke and Steve McLendon is just too raw to call up from the practice squad. He would be more of a liability than anything and cost someone already on the roster their spot. Against the Titans next week, running back Chris Johnson is not really considered an inside, between the tackles runner. He likes to work the edges and is dangerous in the passing game out of the backfield and in open space. Ziggy would be a much better fit spelling Hoke, especially on second down and long plays. Hood is quicker laterally as well and this sets up good for him. The only drawback is that Nick Eason may see more snaps spelling either Aaron Smith or Brett Kiesel at both end spots, but defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau and line coach John Mitchell can easily come up with a different rotation package in needed to keep everyone fresh. Basically the Steelers will be a man down, but I would be surprised if a roster move is made initially. Scott Paxson was the last one out the door, so he remains an outside possibility of being brought back down the road should the Steelers decide they need that extra body.
If the Steelers can survive without both Starks and Hampton until after the bye, that would give both 34 full days, starting today, to get healed and brought back up to full speed for the divisional game against the Cleveland Browns and the return of Roethlisberger to the team. If either are fully healthy before then, so be it, but the win on Sunday eases the pressure of rushing either back too soon. It is not worth it this early on.