Black Cloud Hanging over Steelers Offensive Line

I'm not going to scream the sky is falling yet, but if I have nothing to panic about then I'm not happy. The reason for my distress is the black cloud that seems to be hanging over the Steelers offensive line through the early part of training camp. It started even before camp when guard Kendall Simmons was diagnosed with diabetes. It continued when center Jeff Hartings had his knee flair up, the same one that caused him to miss five games last year.

That's a warning flag for a guy who turns 31 next month.

Then there is Todd Fordham, the free agent signed to battle Oliver Ross for the starting right tackle spot. He was scratched for the pre season opener with Detroit thanks to a bone chip in his elbow. And I might as well throw guard Dave Costa in there as well. The Ellwood City native who signed as a free agent decided his heart wasn't in football anymore and he left camp looking to get on with his life's work. Maybe he should have stayed. At this rate, any offensive lineman still standing by Labor Day, might make the team. Better of course that it's all happening in early August rather than early September. Or for that matter, late October. And here we thought the big offensive line story this summer would be Marvel Smith's move from right to left tackle. It's not even a blip on the screen now.

The good news is Smith and guard Alan Fanaca have been getting their reps as they try to develope a chemistry similar to what Fanaca and Wayne Gandy had. Those two improvised very well together in the heat of the battle. But Gandy of course left for New Orleans.

It's always been my feeling that the offensive line, as a unit, needs to work together more than any other group on the team. They can't operate as individuals. That's why you hate to see all of this lost practice time early in training camp. It's difficult to make up later.

Simmon's situation is certainly the most serious. In his second season, he's not exactly a grizzled vet. And while the long term prognosis isn't bad, many professional athletes have played while controlling diabetes, he could be using this camp to help mature. But with the weight loss and the adjustment of battling the disease, it's going to be difficult for him to play as well as last year let alone improve. At least early on. And while none of the other injuries is overly worrisome at this time, the trend is unsettling.

On the positive side, there appears to be some depth. Keydrick Vincent has had an excellent camp so far, the top backup at guard. Center Chukky Okobi proved last year to be a more than capable replacement for Hartings. In fact Okobi feels the only thing Hartings has on him is experience. I'm not quite convinced of that but the guy can play. And Oliver Ross can play both sides and both tackle and guard if need be.

Last year, the Steelers scored nearly 400 points, finishing fifth overall in total offense. With a healthy Jerome Bettis added to the mix of Tommy Maddox and his lethal weapons three (Plaxico, Hines and Antwaan), fans are expecting even more from this group this season. But it all starts in the trenches. Remember the worst years since Cowher took over as head coach? The offensive line never jelled as high draft picks such as Jamain Stephens, Paul Wiggins and Chris Conrad failed to step up. As they say, an army travels on it's stomach. And a football offense moves on the play of it's line. And I would feel a whole lot better if some of that line started feeling a whole lot better themselves.

Guy Junker

Steel City Insider Top Stories