Offensive line is solid, but backups needed

For the first time in team history, three Steelers offensive linemen were picked for the Pro Bowl in 2004, something that was indicative of the kind of season that unit had in 2004.

Left guard Alan Faneca was what he has been the past three seasons, one of the best linemen in the NFL. Center Jeff Hartings seemingly found the fountain of youth and not only was named to the Pro Bowl, but never complained once of the knee pain that had plagued him the previous two seasons. And left tackle Marvel Smith finally tapped into his potential and joined the elite fraternity that had previously been limited to the likes of Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf.

From the center left, the Steelers were as solid as any team in the NFL and should be again in 2005. But that right side, it's a little more dicey.

Tackle Oliver Ross and guard Keydrick Vincent, who made 16 starts each on the right side in 2004 left for greener pastures in Arizona and Baltimore, respectively.

Kendall Simmons, who missed the entire season after suffering torn knee ligaments during training camp should take over with little problem for Vincent … provided he can stay healthy. A former No. 1 draft pick, Simmons looked outstanding in training camp last season before the injury. If he's sound – and he looked so in the team's offseason workouts – he should be an upgrade over Vincent.

The tackle spot is a little more questionable. Max Starks saw about 10 plays per game as a rookie last season as an extra blocker on short-yardage plays. But other than that, he's largely untested.

The Steelers liked what they saw of him as a run blocker last season. And considering pass blocking was supposed to be his strong point coming out of college, that bodes well.

It also helps that opposing teams quit blitzing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger late in the season last year, instead choosing to drop more people into coverage to make the rookie read and react. If they take that same tact in 2005, Starks will get ample opportunity to settle into the right tackle position.

Where the Steelers are really lacking this season is on the bench. When Simmons went down last season, they had a proven veteran in Vincent ready to take his spot. The team has few such luxuries this year, as center Chukky Okobi and swingman Barrett Brooks are the only backups with any serious experience.

Guard Jim Jones got his feet wet in a few games last season and the team likes his potential as a backup, but he'll be pushed for a roster spot very hard this year by rookie Chris Kemoeatu, a sixth-round draft pick.

Kemoeatu has good size and a nasty streak that should serve him well. He only lacks experience, something the team will give him plenty of during the preseason.

The team also took tackle Trai Essex in the third round of this year's draft, but he missed much of the offseason workout program because he was still tied up at school. Many draft experts questioned the team's selection of Essex in the third round, but the Steelers like his footwork. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm's reputation is on the line.

Tackle Josh Burr is back for another go round with the team, but is just too stiff because of his height to be effective.

Tackles Ulish Booker and Morgan Davis, guard Jake Verstrate, and centers Ben Claxton and Ben Iorio are basically fighting for spots on the practice squad.


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