Tell me if this sounds familiar: the Pittsburgh Steelers need to fix the offensive line. Yes, that horse has been beaten to death. But we've been having this conversation for five years now. I trace it back to the team choosing not to re-sign Wayne Gandy after the 2002 season. Which meant the offensive line featured, from left to right, Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons and Todd Fordham. Until Smith got hurt six weeks into the season and Fordham was benched for almost getting Tommy Maddox paralyzed (I may be misremembering the details on that one).
The offensive line's struggles that year pretty much encapsulated the Steelers' 6-10 record. With an obvious need for depth (if nothing else), the Steelers signed Duce Staley in the off-season -- perhaps they had designs on moving him to guard once he "bulked up" -- along with Travis Kirshke, Terry Fair and Chris Gardocki. They did draft Max Starks in the third round (and took a flier on Bo Lacy in the sixth), but that was the extent of their o-line upgrades.
A year later, it was more of the same, although a 15-1 record masked the offensive line's inadequacies. Winning has a way of solving a lot of problems, even if only temporarily. In the 2005 draft, the Steelers again took a tackle in the third round, this time Trai Essex, a former tight end who had eaten himself out of the position. Three rounds later, Pittsburgh selected Chris Kemoeatu.
And the pattern of sketchy line play followed by addressing the problems in a piecemeal, late-first-day/late-round fashion continued; in 2006, Willie Colon was drafted in the fourth round and Marvin Philip in the sixth. Last year, Cameron Stephenson was a fifth-rounder.
And all the while, the Steelers have been among one of the worst pass-blocking units in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Adjusted sack rate rank, by year:
2000 - 24th
2001 - 13th
2002 - 14th
2003 - 23rd
2004 - 28th
2005 - 23rd
2006 - 25th
2007 - 31st
Obviously, this is all Ben Roethlisberger's fault. The fall off the cliff started with Big Ben's arrival, and this is further proof that Maddox was wrongfully benched. Or maybe the front office and coaching staff should be held responsible for the current sorry state of things. Everybody admits that Roethlisberger will never be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in that he's not a five-step-and-out type of passer. Sure, he can do it, but he also likes to give his receivers time to get open, work outside the pocket, and occasionally, take a few sacks. Who's to say how many times Big Ben goes down playing behind Brady's line (save the Super Bowl) or Manning's front five, but I'm guessing it's well short of 47 since they combined for 42 sacks last season.
While it's hard to argue with the success rate the Steelers have had with recent first-round picks, it's been the second-round picks that have probably caused the most damage. Yes, I know, we might as well call Kevin Colbert "Mario Mendoza" when it comes to hitting on second-day picks, but it's not like any team or general manager is routinely nailing rounds 4-7. Alonzo Jackson is the most gut-wrenching example, but since Bill Cowher allegedly pulled the trigger on that deal in 2003, the Steelers have taken Ricardo Colclough, Bryant McFadden, Anthony Smith and Willie Reid (the two third-rounders from the '06 draft), and LaMarr Woodley. Of the bunch, Woodley is the most promising, but that's almost by default.
In retrospect, Pittsburgh probably should've devoted one or two of those second-rounders to addressing the o-line. Of course, if the front office, coaches and scouts knew Jackson and Colclough would be busts, and Smith, Reid and McFadden would underachieve they presumably wouldn't have drafted them. And to be fair, there really wasn't much to choose from in Round 2 among centers, guards and tackles in the 2003-2005 draft. Not until 2006 -- when the Steelers traded out of the second round -- was there an abundance of offensive linemen, many of whom would currently be starters in Pittsburgh.
Beginning with pick No. 39, there was Winston Justice, Deuce Lutui, Daryn Colledge, Marcus McNeill, Ryan Cook, Andrew Whitworth, and Jeremy Trueblood. And the two first selections of the third round were Charles Spencer and Eric Winston. And last year, Arron Sears, Justin Blalock, Tony Ugoh, Ryan Kalil and Samson Satele were all second-rounders.
The point isn't to play "woulda, shoulda, coulda" with past drafts but to suggest two things going forward:
1. This draft, more than most, is chocked full of quality offensive linemen; the Steelers shouldn't be afraid to draft one in the second round. Look, given the circumstances, I don't think there would be many objections from Steeler Nation if the team took some combination of center, guard, tackle in Rounds 1 and 2. Right now, Branden Albert is the heavy favorite at 1.23 (he has a 95 percent mock draft approval rating) and a part of me will be disappointed if he's not the pick. A part of Roethlisberger will also be disappointed -- and sore -- if Albert isn't the guy. And, if, I don't know, Mike Pollak or Anthony Collins or Sam Baker (or whomever) happens to be hanging around at 2.53, the Steelers should make that happen too. A $10-$15 million dollar investment in the offensive line seems only prudent when it'll be protecting the $100 million quarterback.
2. Taking a linemen in the second round shouldn't preclude them from doing likewise in Round 1 but only if it's the best player available. Last year, virtually nobody outside of the Steelers' war room was a Lawrence Timmons fan, but most of us thought Ben Grubbs was a stretch at 1.15. Looking back, I'm not so sure, but nobody had him going until the mid-20s of the first round. And even if you don't like Timmons, passing on Grubbs at 1.15 was the right thing to do at the time. Which means that if Albert or Chris Williams or Jeff Otah (or again, whomever) is gone when the Steelers go on the clock, they have to draft their board. And barring quarterback or tight end -- as Colbert has mentioned earlier this off-season -- every other position is a possibility. And while I'd love the Steelers to go on a six-pick run of o-linemen, there's no need to reach when there are plenty of needs on this team outside of the offensive line.
In the meantime, I'll continue to pray to the god of mock drafts that Albert and Pollak somehow find their way to Pittsburgh. It seems like the right thing to do.
You can never draft too many linemen
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