The Offensive Line Shuffle

While the real position battles won't begin until the Steelers head for St. Vincent College in Latrobe in a little under two months, the team's volunteer coaching sessions now underway and mini-camp at the beginning of June will offer a sneak preview of several key battles. <br><br> Here is the third in a series previewing those: <br><br> <b>Today: Offensive Tackle</b>

You've heard of the Super Bowl Shuffle, that hokey little song and dance the Chicago Bears did back in the mid-'80s en route to their first - and only - Super Bowl championship.

The Steelers are doing their own version of the shuffle - the offensive line shuffle. And if it works, they, too, could end up winning a Super Bowl.

Three of five starters from last year's season-opening offensive line will be new when the team opens its season in September against Baltimore.

Left tackle Wayne Gandy is gone, taking one last big paycheck to play out the string in New Orleans. Right tackle Marvel Smith will shift to the opposite side of the line to replace Gandy. And last year's season-opening right guard Oliver Ross will get the first opportunity to replace Smith at right tackle.

Smith, a left tackle in college, should more than adequately replace Gandy, who is clearly on the downside of his career. While Smith may lack Gandy's veteran leadership qualities, he is more athletic and better suited to play on the left side than he was the right where more brute force is required.

The real test will be whether or not Ross is the answer at right tackle or if Todd Fordham, signed from Jacksonville as a free agent, is the right man for the job.

Let the battle of the journeymen begin.

While Ross was awful last season at right guard, quickly losing his starting spot to rookie Kendall Simmons, he has played well at tackle in the past when pressed into duty there. That could be because his duties as a tackle are a lot clearer than they are at guard, where he could be asked to pull, trap or help with a double team. Ross won't be asked to do a lot of that at right tackle, where his main job will to only block the man directly in front of him. That Ross can do.

If Ross falters; Fordham is a viable option to replace him, although the Steelers would rather have Fordham available as their swingman, capable of playing any position except center.

If the Steelers are forced to go to Fordham at right tackle, they are in serious trouble. His shutout last season against Jason Gildon aside, Fordham shouldn't be used as much more than a temporary replacement. If the Steelers are forced to start him for more than a game or two, quarterback Tommy Maddox will be in for a long, painful season.

One thing you will not see the Steelers do is move Simmons from right guard to right tackle, even though he was a standout left tackle at Auburn. Simmons has ridiculously short arms that would make it impossible for him to play tackle in the NFL.

The unknown in the Steelers' tackle situation remains third-year man Mathias Nkwenti. Head coach Bill Cowher has stated that this is a huge year for Nkwenti, a former fourth-round draft pick.

Nkwenti is the most physically gifted lineman on the Steelers' roster, but that Adonis-like body hasn't translated to him being able to play the game consistently. Nkwenti will make a nice block on one play and make the worst possible mistake on the next. He just doesn't seem to have the overall desire or knowledge to play in the NFL effectively.

Hey, even Steelers' offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who wanted Nkwenti badly when he was drafted in 2001, can make a mistake.

If Nkwenti is out of the picture this year, that could open a spot on the team's roster for Josh Burr, a massive tackle who spent last season on the team's practice squad.

Dale Lolley
SteelCitySports.com


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