Is this Cowher's best O-line?

LATROBE – They lined up together in the Pro Bowl, black-and-gold helmets from center to left tackle. And together they paved the way for Jerome Bettis's longest run of the game.

It was a picture-perfect end to a season that marked the return of the Steelers' physical run game.

The three Pro Bowlers are back, and they are joined by a returning first-round pick at right guard and a massive first-time starter who sometimes looks like Jonathan Ogden playing right tackle.

That's some kind of line, eh?

"We're not there yet," said line coach Russ Grimm.

"It's only Day 13," said Alan Faneca.

"Unproven," said Bettis.

Not the rousing reception one could have expected. Is there anyone around here who doesn't have to be so politically correct?

"This is the best offensive line we've had in a long time," said Kimo von Oelhoffen.

That's it. More, more.

"I mean a lot of the guys have been here, but this is a good group," the veteran defensive end continued. "Max (Starks) still has to progress, like normal, but he's very good. It's a very good line; even some of the backups are damn good. There's a lot of talent. The inside three are monsters."

Jeff Hartings, the 299-pounder, is a monster?

"I know," von Oelhoffen said. "But his technique is outstanding."

Von Oelhoffen could be right. With Simmons and the 6-foot-8, 340-pound Starks joining three Pro Bowlers, this could be the best Steelers offensive line in the Bill Cowher era. Here's the ever-conservative Grimm's quick assessment:

  • Marvel Smith – "Consistent; hard worker."

  • Alan Faneca – "Great instincts."

  • Jeff Hartings – "Solid; smart."

  • Kendall Simmons – "Steadily improving; more consistent."

  • Max Starks – "Lots of ability; still has some work to do."
  • Is it the best Steelers line in recent history?

    "I think we've got a chance to be good but we're not there yet," said Grimm.

    "Top to bottom, yeah," said Faneca. "We've got 16 guys this year and it's the strongest 16 guys we've had in training camp."

    That would seem to answer the questions about line depth coming into camp. The Steelers could use fifth-year vet Chukky Okobi at center or guard; Big Barrett Brooks could get them through a tight spot at tackle; Jim Jones is another guard with a year on the roster under his belt.

    As for the rookies, third-round tackle Trai Essex is further along in the playbook than sixth-round guard Chris Kemoeatu, but the latter has superior upside. Rookie center Ben Claxton, an NFL Europe all-star, has worked with the second team and former Penn State center Joe Iorio has made a favorable impression.

    But if we can get back to the question one more time, someone might slip and make an admission.

    "This is probably the third or fourth time I've been asked that question in my career here," said Faneca. "It's always tough to compare and I don't think it's really right to compare because everybody brings something different. Oliver (Ross) and Keydrick (Vincent) brought something different to the team; Kendall and Max bring something different. At the same time we haven't been out on the field so it's really hard to figure out who we're going to be yet."

    Last chance: Best line under Cowher?

    "You can't say that. No way," Bettis said. "You can't say that because they're unproven on the right side. I'm not saying they can't, but still these five guys are unproven.

    "Go back to '96 to '97 to 2001. We had some incredible lines, so it's really hard to say now. They have the makings to be the best group. It can be a special, special group. It really can. I'm excited, but it's cautious optimism."

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