By Cian Fahey
Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert recently confirmed that Marcus Gilbert, the team\’s starting right tackle for the majority of last season, is expected to move to the left side of the offensive line for the beginning of next season.
Last season, Ben Roethlisberger\’s blindside was protected by Max Starks for the most part. Starks\’ torn ACL, which he suffered during that infamous playoff loss in Denver, coupled with his status as an unrestricted free agent, means that the team once again must enter this season with a new starting left tackle.
Jonathan Scott started out the season last year as the team\’s starting left tackle but a combination of performance and injuries saw him lose his place to Starks. His play was stellar for the most part proving that he had overcome his neck injury which saw him released in the first place.
If Starks hadn\’t once again suffered a serious injury at the end of last season, he had done more than enough to be re-signed in free agency as the team\’s starting tackle this season.
While the Steelers\’ offensive line is a much maligned group, the performances of their two starting tackles last season were impressive. Once Willie Colon went down in Baltimore, the rookie Gilbert came in to quickly establish himself as a starting caliber player at the professional level.
Gilbert had a fine rookie season on the right-hand-side, but that does not guarantee that he will be able to repeat that level of play on the left-hand-side.
As a football player, Gilbert is a much more all around player than Starks. Gilbert is a better run blocker than Starks and is a reliable pass protector. However, the left tackle position requires a very specific skill-set which Gilbert will need to adjust to.
Unlike a guard or 3-4 defensive end, the left and right tackle positions are very different to each other. Because Ben Roethlisberger is right handed, the responsibility of protecting his blindside falls on the offense\’s left tackle. This means that any struggles in pass protection that the left tackle has are more easily exposed opposed to any the right tackle has.
When Gilbert struggled in protection last year, Roethlisberger could step up, slide out or step back depending on the situation because he could see Gilbert in his eye line. When he moves to the left hand side, any of Gilbert\’s flaws will be highlighted.
While Starks cannot run block like Gilbert, mostly because of his height which makes it difficult for him to lower his pads and gain leverage, he does possess the combination of bulk and quickness to stand up to the better blitzers in the NFL. Starks was by no means perfect, he definitely isn\’t on the same level as a Joe Thomas, Jason Peters or Duane Brown, but he was a proven veteran who had achieved a certain level of comfort and consistency at the position.
That is something which Gilbert is yet to do throughout not only his NFL career, but also his college career.
For the most part, Gilbert didn\’t play left tackle in college. Not until his final season did he actually start at left tackle and even then he split time between both sides of the line. Prior to that season, he had only started right tackle for a full season while also playing some guard.
When you look at the best tackles in the NFL, generally the left-sided players are the ones who receive all the acclaim. This is because left tackle is a much more difficult position to play and requires that rare skill-set. It\’s the same reason why left tackles are paid much more than their counterparts on the other side for the most part.
If you examine the prototypical right tackles in the NFL, you can see that many of them share similar traits to Gilbert. Guys like Andre Smith, Anthony Davis, Eben Britton and Eric Winston, are all perfect fits on the right side but would be exposed on the left.
The Baltimore Ravens made a similar move to the one that the Steelers are making with Gilbert two seasons ago. Michael Oher may have a film made about him called The Blindside, but he couldn\’t actually cover his quarterback\’s blindside when asked to in 2010.
Oher\’s skill-set was actually closer to that of a left tackle than Gilbert\’s is right now while he also had more experience playing the position for a whole season in college at Ole Miss. As a rookie, Oher gained some experience, five games, starting on the left-side of the line but even with his skill-set and experience, he never looked comfortable manning the position full-time.
Starks loss to the Steelers is two-fold.
I am almost certain that the team would have retained him this year if he was fully healthy despite the cap situation. With Starks, Gilbert and Colon, who\’s contract is too big for him to be cut, the Steelers would have had three talented tackles on the roster.
More importantly, the team would have had three talented offensive linemen on the roster. Talent on the offensive line is a big deal for this team considering their struggles as a group in recent years. If Starks had returned as the left tackle, Gilbert could stay on the right with Colon potentially moving to guard.
While there is no guarantee that Colon would excel as a guard, the position has suffered so much that he would likely improve it on sheer talent alone. An offensive line of Starks, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, Colon and Gilbert fills me with a lot more confidence than Gilbert, Doug Legursky, Pouncey, Foster and Colon.
Starks loss, in my view, weakens three positions on the field. Gilbert was a better right tackle than Colon as a rookie, while you have to worry about his health also after the past two seasons. Starks would be better than Gilbert at left tackle and Colon has more experience/talent than Legursky.
Considering that his experience at the position is relatively limited, and the fact that his skill set better suits him to the right-hand-side, asking Gilbert to instantly replicate Starks\’ performances from last year would be unfair. Expectations for Gilbert\’s second season should be tempered.
Expectations for the Steelers\’ offensive line as a group should also be tempered.
Fortunately, Roethlisberger has proven that he can overcome poor protection upfront, while Todd Haley\’s offensive line in Arizona was arguably less talented than this group when he was their offensive coordinator.