Steelers Have Bad Wheels

Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is a happy man these days. <br><br> Blessed with a ton of talent at the skill positions, Mularkey walks around the team's training camp at St. Vincent College with a look similar to a 16-year-old kid whose dad gives him the keys to his Porsche.<br><br> Oh, imagine the possibilities.

There's one problem with this Porsche, however. It just might have some bad wheels.

In the case of Mularkey, the bad wheels are the team's offensive line.

Don't misunderstand, the left side of the line is shaping up like it will be excellent. Alan Faneca is an All-Pro guard and by all accounts; Marvel Smith has made the transition from right to left tackle look easy.

But from center on over to right tackle, the Steelers have problems, and to paraphrase former head coach Chuck Noll, they are great.

Center Jeff Hartings, a Pro Bowl alternate the past two seasons, has missed about half of the team's practices so far at training camp because of a chronic knee problem that's likely to get worse rather than better.

Right guard Kendall Simmons has yet to suit up during this training camp after being hospitalized and diagnosed with diabetes last month.

And the right tackle battle between Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham is shaping up as being exactly what it is, a competition between two journeymen. And that was before Fordham was scratched from Saturday's preseason game at Detroit with bone chips in his elbow.

The bottom line is, no matter how much talent a team has at the skill positions on offense, without solid play from its offensive line, it's going nowhere.

Case and point are the St. Louis Rams of last season.

The Rams had as much talent at the skill positions as any team in the league last season. But an unsettled offensive line allowed quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk to be beaten up like a red-headed freckled kid wearing a "kick me" sign on the playground.

The Rams spent the entire off-season upgrading their offensive line in an effort to keep Warner upright this season.

Considering Steelers' quarterback Tommy Maddox would be hard-pressed to beat Warner in a footrace, the Steelers may have similar problems this season.

It's hard to complete those nice down-the-field passes when you're lying flat on your back - although many Steelers fans will recall former QB Mike Tomczak attempting to do so.

Can the situation be fixed before the season begins?

Maybe.

Simmons will likely return to the lineup sometime next week, while it's debatable how much training camp work a veteran like Hartings needs, anyway.

At some point, the Steelers will settle on Ross or Fordham at the right tackle position and let him run with the job.

A little stability can go a long way.

But this turmoil should be an eye-opener for the team as it prepares to head into 2004. Given Hartings' knee condition and his open talk about retirement, we can assume he won't return next season.

Backup Chukky Okobi is scheduled to become a restricted free agent at the conclusion of this season and the team will likely have to come up with extra cash to keep him around. And finding a permanent right tackle will be an off-season priority.

Porsches can be driven on bald tires, but at some point those tires must be replaced or there's going to be a blowout or crash.

Dale Lolley
SteelCitySports.com

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