By Cian Fahey
Arguably since 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been winning games in spite of their offensive line. There has been some decent combinations upfront, but never has the line really been a strength since Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks pushed the team towards a Super Bowl victory.
That group of offensive linemen were mostly veterans, Starks was in his second season and first as a starter, who the team had invested heavily in. Smith was a second round pick, Faneca a first, Hartings arrived in free agent after previously being a first round pick of the Lions, Simmons was a first for the Steelers and Starks was taken in the third round.
After a few years of overlooking the offensive line in favor of other talents, the Steelers recently refocused on adding talent to the area with a greater emphasis early in drafts. Maurkice Pouncey was the first center off the board two years ago. Marcus Gilbert was taken at the end of the second round last year.
Gilbert and Pouncey proved themselves as more than capable starters for the Steelers at right tackle and center respectively. They will remain there this year and expectations are rightfully raised for them as Pouncey returns to full healthy, something that has dogged him since the end of his rookie year, and Gilbert should continue to develop.
Outside of those two positions however, there are question marks aplenty. In fact, considering there are new faces at every position, there are more question marks than certainties with the Steelers\’ new look offensive line.
Willie Colon was re-signed to a big deal prior to last season to play right tackle. Colon was injured last year, again, and returns this year to play left guard. While Colon is a veteran, both his health and performance are now question marks as he adapts to playing a completely new position. The typical theory is that it is easier to play guard than tackle, and Colon is supposedly suited to play guard over tackle, but until he actually proves it on Sundays, he remains a risk.
You can essentially call Colon a rookie this year because he has missed so much football in recent seasons and is playing a brand new position. He will be joined, most likely, by two real rookies at left tackle and right guard.
David DeCastro is a sure starter at right guard after being drafted in the first round as the highest rated guard in recent memory. While DeCastro appears to have unnatural talent and an incredible work-rate, he is still going to have to go through some phase of transition.
The closest comparison to DeCastro in recent seasons is the San Francisco 49ers\’ Mike Iupati. Iupati had a very good rookie year and looked comfortable from day one as the 49ers allowed him to maul opposition more often than put him in pass protection.
Iupati landed in a situation that didn\’t really put much pressure on him and allowed him to play in his comfort zone. DeCastro may not be given that same grace. It\’s unclear what Todd Haley has planned for the Steelers\’ offense, we won\’t know what the tendencies of the offense is until at least mid-season, but the likelihood is that the Steelers will be passing the ball a lot.
If that happens, DeCastro will be tested in every possible way as he still looks to clear the way for Isaac Redman and company in the running game.
While it is expected that Mike Adams joins DeCastro in the lineup at left tackle, it is not guaranteed just yet. Adams really needs to step up without Max Starks on the roster as Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex would be liabilities.
Adams was drafted in the second round after convincing the Steelers to put him back on their draft board. There have been many tackles taken in the second round in recent years, but only one of them started at left tackle as a rookie.
Since the 2008 draft, only one tackle taken in the second round has been a week one starting left tackle during his rookie season: Rodger Saffold. Saffold had an average rookie year considering, but his second season was a struggle. The Steelers would be delighted to get the same kind of production from Adams as a rookie, but Saffold\’s inconsistency should be a palpable reminder of the inconsistencies that come with youth.
Unless Starks returns, the Steelers have to have Adams playing left tackle as Essex and Scott simply aren\’t good enough, that puts the pressure on the rookie at a vital position on the field.
The Steelers have won in recent seasons without a good offensive line, and the group really can\’t get much worse than it has been at times. However Ben Roethlisberger is 30 now, he needs better protection and can\’t be looked to to consistently play back-yard football. Last season was derailed largely due to Roethlisberger\’s ankle injury that he suffered outside the pocket trying to extend the play.
That risk will always be there with this kind of quarterback, but you can minimize those risks by improving the offensive line. There is no question that the line\’s long-term future has been improved, but for the short-term, don\’t be expecting the 2012 group to replicate 2005\’s straight off the bat.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf