With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger now 30, and the team's most valuable player sacked an average of 43.5 times over the last six seasons -- including 40 or more sacks in all but one of those campaigns, and coming off an ankle injury last year -- Pittsburgh has drastically retooled its blocking unit.
It's not often that a perennial playoff team like the Pittsburgh Steelers so dramatically revamps its offensive line in such a short period of time. But, then again, it's not often that an annual postseason contender has such a dire area of need yet is able to get by with an obviously deficient unit.
Coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert contend the remaking of the line wasn't necessarily intentional, and that circumstances and the club's draft board essentially dictated some of the moves since 2010. But it's notable that, in the past three drafts, the Steelers have selected four players now projected to start in 2012. And it's likewise worth mentioning that no other playoff team from 2011 is expected to have more than two line changes this season, and that 10 clubs will have either one or zero alterations.
"Whether it was needed or not, there's been a big shuffle," said two-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, a first-round pick in 2010. "Hopefully, we can all come together pretty quickly."
Quickly also describes the manner in which the club has addressed its line.
The latest move came this week with the revelation that former right tackle Willie Colon, who has played just one game the past two seasons because of injuries, will switch to left guard. While Colon was considered the team's best lineman before his injuries curtailed the 2010 and 2011 campaigns, there was always discussion of him moving to guard, and the switch essentially puts the rest of the ducks in a row.
Two rookies, first-rounder David DeCastro and No. 2 pick Mike Adams, are slated to start at right guard and left tackle respectively. The choice of Adams, who some felt had first-round credentials before he tested positive for marijuana at the combine, negates the move of second-year right tackle Marcus Gilbert to the left side. And it means Pittsburgh will start a quintet in which four of the players are 24 or younger. Only Colon, 29, is older.
The shuffle also means that Pittsburgh could start a line that totals just 44 starts over the past two seasons. But in 2011, resourceful line coach Sean Kugler was forced to use a league-high 21 combinations. And while the breaking-in period could present some difficulties, the Steelers feel that in the long run the changes will be well worth it, and will better protect Roethlisberger.
Said Colon, who seemingly has embraced the change: "If things work out, we could be good for a while."
--The presence alone of attorney Peter Ginsberg, who represented Michael Vick and tied the NFL in knots when he represented suspended Minnesota defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, makes Jonathan Vilma's defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell more than just a nuisance case.
The veteran Ginsberg knows his way around a courtroom and has in the past parsed the nuances of the league's collective bargaining agreement.
But most legal experts concur that the New Orleans linebacker faces a difficult task in establishing that Goodell acted with intention and malice, and that the ponderous burden makes it almost impossible for him to prevail.
What Vilma may do is force the league to reveal some or all of its evidence, including testimony from past or current teammates and coaches, and that could make for an uncomfortable situation. How difficult a chore do Ginsberg and Vilma face?
The Sports Xchange has learned that at least one player and one of the suspended New Orleans executives considered similar actions but backed off when advised of the burden confronting them.
They may change their minds, The Sports Xchange was told, but understand that the ramifications will be dicey.
--Unlike the Philadelphia Eagles, who reportedly have decided to dock offensive tackle Jason Peters for his offseason Achilles ruptures -- technically regarded as non-football injuries -- Baltimore officials have made no decision about adjusting the salary of linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is due a salary of $4.9 million and roster bonus of $4.6 million for 2012.
There have been some discussions about the injury and salary, sources from both sides allow, but the Ravens may wait a while to gauge the rehabilitation progress of the league's reigning defensive player of the year before determining how to handle his case.
Suggs has insisted he will return at some point in the season, and the Baltimore medical staff is still assessing the situation.
Also complicating the matter is that Suggs and his new agent, Joel Segal, are hoping to parlay the defensive player of the year award into a contract extension beyond the current deal, which runs through 2014. A resolution isn't expected soon.
--The five-year, $45 million extension signed by Philadelphia tailback LeSean McCoy on Thursday -- with the raw numbers provided by "a league source" otherwise known as agent Drew Rosenhaus, seeming to check out as accurate -- merited considerable attention.
And deservedly so.
But the megadeal, hinted at earlier in the week by Eagles' coach Andy Reid, also cast some light on the predicament of teams and running backs. McCoy won't be 24 until July, and, while he's been a workhorse for the Eagles the past two seasons, averaging 303.0 "touches" in that stretch, there's still some tread on the tires.
Philadelphia, where team president Joe Banner relies on an almost actuarial-type model for assessing what a player might have left in the tank, clearly feels confident McCoy has several productive years remaining.
Still, the bet here is that McCoy's deal will be restructured as least once between now and its end-year, 2017.
Teams are reluctant to invest heavily in the running back position, based much on age -- although Carolina signed DeAngelo Williams to a fat deal last year at age 28 -- and it will be interesting to see how the contract affects negotiations between the Chicago Bears and "Matt Forte and the Baltimore Ravens and Ray Rice, both "franchised" backs.
Forte will be 27 in December and Rice turned 25 in January. Sources in both the Rice and Forte camps acknowledged on Thursday night that they are closely scrutinizing the McCoy contract.
Forte has averaged 20.6 "touches" per game over the course of his four-year career, with all 60 games as a starter. Rice has averaged 22.3 "touches" in his 49 career starts, with an average of 341.3 the past three seasons.
McCoy has averaged 20.7 "touches" in his 32 career starts. Forte was on pace for 340 "touches" in 2012, but an injury limited him to 12 appearances.
--Veteran free agent tailbacks continue to have trouble landing jobs.
Although New England recently added Joseph Addai, and is confident it will carve out a role for the former Indianapolis star, the pool of unrestricted free agents still includes players like Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones, Ryan Grant and Jackie Battle.
Jones still wants to play at age 33, and Benson's representatives have been phoning around, albeit with little luck, to attempt to generate interest.
Grant looked to have a deal close in Detroit, but it collapsed, and Battle hasn't garnered much attention since early in the signing period.
Benson's people tried to sell the back to Oakland, as a potential backup to oft-injured Darren McFadden -- who has lost his safety net with the defection of Michael Bush to Chicago -- but with no luck so far.
--Think the rookie wage scale, which formally "slots" players into salary cap values and leaves little or no wiggle room for negotiations, isn't working?
According to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, there were 147 draft choices who had reached contract accords by Thursday night.
That's more than twice as many as the total number of drafted players who had signed by the end of May in the previous seven years.
Of course, because of the lockout last year, no rookie deals had been completed by the end of May.
Eight franchises had already signed their entire draft classes.
--The details weren't available yet on Friday morning, but it will be interesting to see the breakdown of the four-year contract that first-round cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick signed with the Cincinnati Bengals early in the day.
Prior to the Kirkpatrick deal, all six of the first-round choices in the top 19 picks had their entire deals guaranteed for skill and injury. The two first-round choices signed below the 19th slot had only the first three seasons of their contracts guaranteed.
Early word is that Kirkpatrick, selected 17th, did not receive a guarantee for all four seasons of a contract that was expected to be worth about $8.5 million.
--If the Seattle Seahawks intend to install a passing game package that addresses the height issues of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, who measured only 5-feet-10 5/8 at the combine in February, it wasn't evident at the team's rookie camp last weekend.
Then again, it probably wouldn't be, since the rookie camp is basically designed as an orientation-type session, in which first-year players can get their feet on the ground.
"The basics first," quarterback coach Carl Smith acknowledged.
During the two-hour sessions with helmets only (by comparison, Seattle veterans have only been on the field for roughly 45 minutes-1 hour so far), perhaps the lone concession to Wilson's size was that he might have worked out of the shotgun a little more than normal.
But there is a suspicion among some Seahawks' veterans that for Wilson to be successful -- and there is considerable skepticism that the third-round draft choice can legitimately challenge Tarvaris Jackson or Matt Flynn for the No. 1 job, as coach Pete Carroll insisted -- offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will have to implement a package that gets the former North Carolina State/Wisconsin star out of the traditional pocket.
Seattle officials constantly point to Wilson's over-the-top delivery and high release point, and his strong arm, but those things may not be sufficient for him to mount a march to the starting job.
Or, to actually contend for it.
Wilson overcame a lot of odds in his college career, but his height had him off the draft boards of a few teams last month, and some of Carroll's colleagues in the NFL privately question using a third-round pick on a prospect who, competitiveness aside, was graded by some as just a career No. 3 guy.
--League owners convene a one-day meeting in Atlanta next Tuesday.
While the agenda isn't exactly loaded with sexy stuff, and much of the unofficial discussion in the corridors of the Buckhead hotel where the league will meet will revolve around safety topics and the Jonathan Vilma defamation lawsuit against Commissioner Roger Goodell, there are some roster-related issues that were tabled in March, and figure to be addressed.
They include: allowing teams to designate one injured reserve player, who was on the roster through Week 1, to return to action after eight weeks, instead of sitting out the entire season; a roster exemption for a player suffering from a concussion; and moving the trade deadline back by two weeks, from the Tuesday following the sixth week of play until after Week 8.
One owner told The Sports Xchange that he feels all three changes have a "decent shot" at being approved, particularly the first two.
-Some of the discussion at Tuesday's league meeting is expected to focus on the resurrected USFL, which is being reconstituted as a "feeder" or minor league, and on how involved the NFL should be with it. Former NFL executive Jim Steeg, who once presided over Super Bowl preparations, is chairman of the USFL's board of advisors, and that could give it some entre with the NFL.
-Word is that the Jacksonville football regime isn't as enamored with the potential for a "Hard Knocks" appearance as is new Jaguars' owner Shahid Khan.
-With the Friday addition of former Miami starter Yeremiah Bell, the New York Jets further addressed a safety position that struggled in 2011. But Bell, who signed a $1.4 million deal, is the second veteran safety to sign just a one-year contract with the team, joining LaRon Landry, and the Jets may have to rebuild the position again next spring.
-Although Levi Brown struggled at left tackle for Arizona in 2011, Cardinals coaches seem content to leave him on the blind side. There was some thought the Cardinals might move Brown back to the right side, where he played the first three seasons of his career, and perhaps try fourth-round rookie Bobbie Massie on the left side. But it looks now like Massie, whom the Cards' coaches regard as a draft steal, will play the right side.
-Buffalo officials still think there is a chance that second-round offensive lineman Cordy Glenn can play left tackle, although many scouts contend that his best position is guard.
-Ravens officials regard the comments this week by safety Ed Reed, who suggested alternately that he had not fully committed to 2012 and then insisted that he wants to play several more years, as a contract play. The eight-time Pro Bowl defender is entering the final season of his contract and apparently feels his $7.2 million base salary is unsatisfactory.
-Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer feels that the Cincinnati line is one of the best young, deepest and unheralded units in the league.
-Look for Tennessee to play more man coverages in the secondary in 2012, and to increase its blitz ratio. The Titans traditionally have relied on their front four to generate pressure, but are expected to make some changes in that regard.
- Congratulations to Hall of Fame quarterback "Ace" Parker for celebrating his 100th birthday Thursday. Parker, inducted into the Canton shrine in 1972, is the only Hall of Fame member to celebrate his 100th birthday and, according to the folks at the Hall, only the fourth former NFL player in history to reach the milestone. According to the Hall, 12 Canton enshrines reached 90 years of age or better, including three current members.
-The Steelers are still in the market for some affordable veteran help on the offensive line and at linebacker, but are not likely, even with Rashard Mendenhall coming off knee surgery, to add a veteran running back.
-Russell Wilson, who was the 75th player selected last month, is the highest quarterback drafted by Seattle since the Seahawks tabbed Rick Mirer with the second overall choice in 1993.
- One more Wilson note: The Seahawks have noted several times that, while Wilson was the shortest of the 19 quarterbacks at the combine (by nearly 1 1/2 inches), he had a hand measurement of 10 1/4 inches. That was a bigger hand than 14 of the combine quarterbacks. The ability to wrap his fingers around the ball, however, might not compensate for the height deficiency.
-With the guilty verdict against Rolando McClain, in which he was sentenced to 180 days of jail, Oakland officials were said to be fishing around to see if there were any middle linebacker options, via trade or free agency, late in the week. McClain might play all or part of the season, but the Raiders are doing their due diligence, just in case.
The last word: "I don't buy it. I'm only speaking from my personal experience, because I haven't allowed myself to buy it, and I haven't been affected. Yes, I'm aware that football is a rough sport. But instead of saying, 'Oh, I'm doomed to brain trauma,' I said, 'What can I do about it?' And I just started taking care of my body. I found people, places and things that really helped me. Again, I don't know what's going to happen to me in 10 years, but I look at the other things I've learned about, and the way I see the world. And to me, it's like, 'OK, yes.' If we're going to spend six months brutalizing our bodies, I said, 'That makes sense. (So) I'm going to spend six months taking care of my body.' I started to equip myself with tools. I started practicing yoga, and I started learning some hands-on healing stuff. I found really good chiropractors and message therapists, and I found that I was able to peel off layers of trauma on my body. I actually move better now than I did (during my playing career)." -- former NFL tailback Ricky Williams, who played 11 seasons in the league, on the recent attention afforded concussions and head trauma.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.