No worries about line, yet

You'd think an offensive line that lost its best player to free agency and that has seen no major improvements would be a big concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Instead, it seems the Steelers are taking an Alfred E. Neuman approach: What - Me Worry?

The Mad magazine fictional mascot aside, it seems as if the Steelers should be concerned about an offensive line that allowed 47 sacks last season and lost All-Pro guard Alan Faneca.

Just two days into mini-camp, it's been business as usual for the team.

They expect the line to play better in 2008. They expect Chris Kemoeatu, prior to this season a reserve, to step into Faneca's spot at left guard. And they expect to run the ball as they've always done.

"You know there are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "You can get linemen or you can get him weapons. People that people have to account for."

The Steelers got the weapons in the draft, taking running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round and wide receiver Limas Sweed in the second.

They didn't take an offensive lineman until the fourth round when they selected tackle Tony Hills, who is something of a project. And the only free agent pickup was former Tennessee and Carolina starting center Justin Hartwig, who is expected to challenge Sean Mahan for the same position with the Steelers.

Yet when mini-camp opened Friday, the only change on the line was Kemoeatu at left guard in place of Faneca.

"I have a lot of confidence in that guy," said offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. "Aside from the physical thing, he's a big kid. He was ready to play last year. He was ready, and Kendall (Simmons) kind of won the thing, but it was close. When we came out of training camp, preseason games, the grades were close. But this kid is ready to play. The thing that I told him the other day, ‘It's obvious to me, when you see blitzes, you understand it all. Just become a little more verbal.' He understands things. I like him, I really do like him. I think he's going to be a good player."

But how long is it going to take?

Kemoeatu, a sixth-round pick in the 2005 draft, has seen limited playing time and lost a battle for the right guard position in training camp to Simmons last year in training camp.

"I'm not going to be as good as (Faneca) yet, but I'm trying to work at it and try to be the best that I can be," Kemoeatu said. "I'm going to work hard every day and try to communicate a lot better and learn how to play next to them. Being part of the first group, there's a role that you have to set for the younger guys. We're in there trying to do all we can to get better.

"There's some big shoes I've got to fill and big expectations, not just from the coaches, but from the older guys I'm trying to play next to."

One of those players is left tackle Marvel Smith.

And perhaps the fact that Smith is healthy now is the biggest reason for the team's optimism.

Smith played most of last season with a bulging disc in his back that was pressing on a nerve and causing numbness than ran down his right leg. He tried to play through the pain, missing two games late in the season before returning in December for two more games. But after a loss to Jacksonville in December at Heinz Field in which Smith was obviously not himself, the Steelers shut him down for the season and he had surgery to remove the disc two days after Christmas.

"It was a great Christmas present," Smith said, who said the injury caused his leg to go numb, leaving him with limited mobility.

"The thing I noticed mostly was that my strength came back. When it was numb, I couldn't feel it. It was like I was peg legged, running around. I didn't have the change of direction like I normally do. That's the one thing I've noticed right away."

Smith said he feels like a new person. He had played with the disc problem for the past couple of years, but it really became a problem last season, starting in training camp.

"I felt some numbness from opening day on," he said. "From my leg down. Sometimes I couldn't tell if my foot was planted in the ground. I'd come up to the line of scrimmage and I couldn't feel my foot sometimes. I don't know if I should say that, but that's what happened."

And a healthy Smith is great news for the Steelers.

Since he became their starting left tackle in 2003, Smith has missed 19 games. The Steelers, who have been one of the NFL's best teams during that time, are 8-11 when he doesn't play.

Can a healthy Smith balance out not having Faneca in the lineup?

Quite possibly.

And if the Steelers can settle their center battle, maybe there is some reason for optimism.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.


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