How to Pave Thunder Road

From the notebook of a sportswriter who needed a full week to review the Senior Bowl and decipher what it means to the Steelers and their upcoming draft:

* The second time through the tape, when I actually put pen to paper to help with this column, I watched the nose tackles, or at least the two that mattered: Alameda Ta'amu and Mike Martin.

* I'll compare the 307-pound Martin to the 305-pound Chris Hoke, the former Steelers backup who recently retired. Martin isn't pretty. Nor is he a two-gapper. But he's a handful of whirling elbows and effort in the same vein as Hoke. Martin won't consistently clog plays in short-yardage, but neither did Hoke, and the Steelers won 18 of 20 games that Hoke started.

* While Hoke slipped to the Steelers as an undrafted rookie, Martin, the only defensive player worth watching at Michigan the past couple of years, might have to be taken in the third round. And that's really not a bad place to settle a spot that's seemingly become less important in today's game.

* Casey Hampton was 12th on the Steelers' defense in snaps per games played, and I didn't even count the playoff game as one played for him (although I did count his couple of snaps). Nor did I count Aaron Smith's four-game block of stats, which would've pushed Hampton to 13th place.

* Ta'amu is the prototype for the position, the guy most like Hampton in this draft. And the 6-2½, 341-pounder played like a first-round pick in the Senior Bowl. He stuffed the run, of course, but also read and ran down screen plays, consistently pushed the pocket, consistently hustled downfield to support intermediate pass plays, and has his weight down from when he was playing lackluster ball early in the season.

* But also consider Ta'amu's previous game, the 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. While Ta'amu showed he could collapse the pocket and rush the passer better than most nose tackles, it meant nothing against Baylor QB Robert Griffin. Ta'amu showed a relentless motor but it did zero to help Washington's chances. It was similar to watching Hampton play against New Orleans or Green Bay.

* Of course, the Steelers play in the AFC North, and Ta'amu would play a bigger part in cold-weather games against the Baltimore Raven and the like. But so would a road-grating offensive lineman, who would also be a factor against the New Orleans and Green Bays of the world as well.

* So unless a raw but bodaciously talented interior player such as Dontari Poe tempts the Steelers on athletic ability alone – even though he may not be a fit as a nose tackle – I don't see the Steelers drafting a defensive lineman in the first round.

* I remember back in 2001 when I did a radio draft show with Ellis Cannon. I was in favor of drafting Hampton to anchor the Steelers' 3-4 as a replacement for the mis-positioned Kimo von Oelhoffen. Ellis wanted Steve Hutchinson, the great guard from Michigan. Well, the Steelers drafted Hampton and became the best run-stopping team of the ensuing decade. And they also struggled to run the ball once their great O-linemen started to leave. Perhaps the results will be reversed in the coming decade by choosing a big guard in the first round this year.

* And by picking someone such as Martin to rotate with Steve McLendon at nose tackle, and because stopping the pass has become more important – and difficult – than stopping the run, the Steelers could do what they failed to do in 2001 and win on both sides of the line.

* Missing the following year on guard Kendall Simmons was the fly in the ointment back then.

* Perhaps Simmons, a left tackle out of the SEC, wasn't the proper segue to my preferred choice at pick 24 this year: Cordy Glenn, a left tackle out of the SEC who projects to guard in the NFL.

* Glenn handled left tackle well in the Senior Bowl, but when he moved inside he was whipped early by Ta'amu. Glenn did rebound to play effectively the rest of his brief appearance at the position.

* In the second half, when Glenn approached the line of scrimmage standing a full head taller than the rest of the mutts on the South line, it became clear that he was the man here. He stuck out like a sore thumb for a Steelers team that needs a starting guard, but also needs a fallback at both tackle spots in case Willie Colon is truly injury-plagued or Marcus Gilbert struggles with the intended switch to left tackle. Glenn can play four of the five positions.

* I can just hear Bruce Springsteen singing, "You ain't a beauty but hey you're alright. Oh and that's alright with me."

* Thunder Road(-grater) would be the natural nickname for Glenn at this point in the column, but I can't really say I saw him get out in space and live up to my expectations for a man that big and mobile. Not that he was given many opportunities.

* An alternative would be Kelechi Osemele of Iowa State. He's the same height at 6-5½, and only weighed 13 pounds less at the Senior Bowl than did the 346-pound Glenn. Both have 35-plus-inch arms. Both played left tackle this season and project to guard. Glenn just seemed more sound, more confident. Perhaps that comes with the SEC pedigree.

* What if both Glenn and Luke Kuechly are available at pick 24? I'm going to flabbergast myself and say that I would pick Glenn because there are so many good linebackers whom I expect to be available in rounds 2-4.

* Kind of like cornerback last year.

* Please forgive me my trespass here. Kuechly is an unbelievable talent, someone who would star at the Steelers' buck position for years and years, a much better player coming out than was Sean Lee. But sometimes we get caught up in our own, um, thought processes, and instead choose lumbering giants.

* There's little chance the Steelers force out a media-beloved offensive coordinator and then not draft offense first.

* Speaking of which, do you think any of the many Arians apologists in the media understand what Joe Greene was saying about effective playcalling as opposed to ratios and overall stats?

* No, I don't either.

* OK, so we're on to linebackers, and I have to say I'm falling for Bobby Wagner as a second-round pick. If you watched the Senior Bowl, you saw him "climb the ladder" for an interception. He did the same at the goal line to tip away a would-be touchdown. The guy has athletic ability to go along with a nose for the ball that allowed him to make the tackle on all four South kickoff returns.

* A product of that other "U," Utah State, Wagner played outside on the strong side, but I really don't know if there's a prototype for an inside 3-4 backer. Of course, to play the buck one has to be highly intelligent. That's for the scouts to determine but Wagner appears to have it all.

* As much as I loved watching Sean Spence play last season, I've had to move Nigel Bradham past him on my ILB wish list. Bradham may not be as quick as Spence, but he's thicker and wasn't beaten on any play until very late in the Senior Bowl. I'd consider Bradham in the second round as well.

* The Steelers are said to be looking at Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin (6-3¼, 248) as an outside linebacker, and McClellin played very well in this game as a 4-3 OLB. Admittedly he had a head of steam on the play, but McClellin ran down beep-beep WR Joe Adams from behind as Adams was just starting to get into high gear. McClellin showed in other spots as well that he can run like a pro linebacker.

* Speaking of speed, Zach Brown is the fastest linebacker of them all, but the problem with this alleged "run and hit" backer is that he doesn't hit. Once again Brown looked to me like a cornerback trying to play inside linebacker.

* If Mike Tomlin drafts Brown and starts squawking about him being a "run and hit" type, I think I might have to leave the room.

* The smallish inside linebacker from Arkansas State, DeMario Davis, was a late addition, so I don't have his weigh-in numbers, but he showed fourth-round potential. He may not have the height to cover the Rob Gronkowskis of the pro world, but he had enough strength to take on Cordy Glenn's block on the second level and tackle a running back. Two plays later, Glenn pulled into the strong side and couldn't blow Davis out of the hole as the play lost a couple of yards.

* Hey, I'm just assuming Glenn can play guard. He did it his junior year. Maybe he was a little rusty after playing left tackle at Georgia this past season. Or maybe he's just a tackle in a guard's body.

* Which brings us to Michael Adams, the enigmatic left tackle from Ohio State. At 6-7, 323 he's the prototype, but something just seemed to be missing in his play. Since I'm the only one who seems to believe this, I'm going to assume it's my mistake. If someone drafts him before pick 24, that'll take me off the hook.

* We're deep into the second half in Mobile right now and I just watched Courtney Upshaw beat Adams for a sack.

* And there's McClellin cutting off an Adams dart down the sideline with a perfect angle. McClellin's going to be a sleeper in this draft as a 3-4 OLB.

* Osemele just flattened Quinton Coples and finished the play with some real nastiness. Osemele was wrongly called for holding on the play as analyst Charles Davis explained that Osemele played all season with an ankle injury.

* And that might explain the season-long inconsistencies and questions about his alleged poor work ethic.

* And two plays later, Coples juked Osemele to get to the quarterback as Osemele fell flat on his face. Ah, you win some, you lose some.

* The last kickoff of the game meant another chance for Bobby Wagner, but a touchback ruined his bid to go 5 for 5.

* Didn't see any crushing blocks out of the fullback position, but UMass's Emil Igwenagu had to spin his 245 pounds 180 degrees to make an impressive catch coming out of the backfield. He was a late add after showing equally impressive pass-catching skills at the Shrine Game.

* On the final series, someone finally ran past my man Nigel Bradham, and it was all because of guard Kevin Zeitler who played just about a perfect game. If only Zeitler were a guard-tackle instead of a guard-center.

* As the tape fades to black, I'm watching Zeitler finish the game by pushing Clemson NT/DT Brandon Thompson around like a ragdoll. One would hope that's the last time I have to write Thompson's name.


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