Breaking down the Steelers / Offensive line

The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers intrigued us, made us smile and surprised even their harshest critics. <br><br> Ultimately, however, they disappointed.

But there is plenty to be excited about for next season. The core of the team is under contract for next season and the Steelers will open the 2005 season as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

This will be a position-by-position look at the Steelers from 2004.

Today: The offensive line.

The biggest part of the Steelers' turnaround from 2003 to 2004 was the play of its offensive line. A unit that struggled with injuries and poor play in 2003, rebounded to be the strong point of the team in 2004.

But it won't return intact in 2005.

The Steelers were one of the few teams in the NFL this season to have all five linemen who opened the season in their starting lineup start all 16 games.

But guard Keydrick Vincent, who played all 16 games at right guard in place of injured Kendall Simmons, and right tackle Oliver Ross are both free agents and are unlikely to return.

Vincent, a good but not great blocker, is expendable because Simmons is expected to be totally recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in training camp. Though Vincent is a restricted free agent, another team will take a shot at Vincent even if the Steelers tender him an offer. Since he was an undrafted rookie, he wouldn't even cost a team that signs him a draft pick if the Steelers tender him an offer - unless they go with a high tender, something that is unlikely.

The team's 2001 first-round draft pick, Simmons was having an excellent training camp and looked outstanding in the team's first preseason game before his season-ending injury. If Simmons plays up to his potential in 2005, the team's offensive line has a chance to be even better than it was in 2004.

Ross has never been more than a stopgap player for the Steelers, but played OK in 2004. He's a good run blocker, but struggles in pass protection. That said, given the state of blockers in the NFL, both Ross and Vincent will be offered more money on the open market than they are worth.

Given their choice, the Steelers wouldn't mind bringing Ross back if the price is right. He can play either guard position and right tackle, which would give the Steelers a valuable backup swingman.

Head coach Bill Cowher made a point of raving about the play of rookie Max Starks at his season-ending press conference and Starks will get every opportunity to win the right tackle position. The Steelers will likely bring in a veteran safety net and also select a tackle prospect at some point in the draft.

Starks saw considerable playing time as an extra tight end in the team's short-yardage package and showed he can run block. And he got consistently better as a blocker in training camp. There's no reason he can't hold down the team's right tackle position for the next 10 seasons.

At left tackle, Marvel Smith came back strong after an injury-plagued 2003 season. He didn't seem bothered by the pinched nerve that cost him more than half of the previous season and was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl. Some felt he was the team's most consistent lineman.

Left guard Alan Faneca had yet another Pro Bowl season and could be in the middle of a Hall of Fame career if he continues to play at his current level. Faneca is as good as they come in the NFL.

At center, Jeff Hartings not only earned his first Pro Bowl trip in 2004, he was also named to the All-Pro team, meaning he was thought to be the league's best center. Hartings actually should have been named to the Pro Bowl before this, but the facts are that he's still playing at a high level and has shaken off the knee problems that plagued him two seasons ago.

Hartings earns a big salary in 2004 - one of the highest on the team - but will definitely be back, albeit at a lower-negotiated salary.

Hartings struggles with big defensive tackles, but the same could be said of his backup, Chukky Okobi. Both are better help blockers than they are one-on-one.

If Vincent leaves, Jim Jones will move up in the pecking order as the team's backup guard. Jones, who is also a restricted free agent, showed some promise during the preseason and his presence would alleviate the team's need to add a guard in the draft.

Backup tackle Barrett Brooks is an unrestricted free agent and won't be back, while Josh Burr spent the 2004 season on injured reserve after blowing his knee out in NFL Europe. Burr was released by the team in training camp in 2003 after he struggled with his pass blocking. He's a longshot to make the team.

Breaking Down The Steelers Archives - Offensive Lineman - Tight Ends/Receivers - Running Backs - Quarterbacks

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