Solving the sack conundrum:

Sean Mahan wasn't the Steelers' only problem -- or it's biggest -- in 2007, but something has to give if the team is to improve, and Big Ben is to survive.

Ben Roethlisberger took 47 sacks last season. He went down 46 more times the season before. That's 93 sacks in 30 regular season games. By comparison, Tom Brady has been sacked 99 times since 2004, Peyton Manning just 83 times since 2003. In sack years, Big Ben, 26, is roughly the same age as Brady (30) and Manning (32), and by 2012, he'll look more like Burt Reynolds in the remake of the Longest Yard than a 31-year-old in his prime. That's an exaggeration, of course (Ben would never sport a mustache), but it's meant to underscore just how important Roethlisberger is to the Pittsburgh Steelers' success. Revolutionary, I know, and only slightly more apparent than the idea that the offensive line might have also played some ancillary role in all this.

Now that it's June, the deadest part of the offseason, I've been thinking more about the 2007 season, free agency and the draft that followed, and what it all means for 2008. Parroting Mike Tomlin on draft weekend, I wrote that the Steelers could theoretically solve their offensive line issues by stocking up on skill-position players. The reasoning goes something like this: a pass defense can neutralize a pass offense in one of two ways: send more rushers, or drop more players into coverage. Offenses with few weapons and questionable pass blockers can expect plenty of the former; big-play-capable offenses often see more of the latter. The obvious examples are the most prolific offenses: New England and Indianapolis. Brady and Manning routinely carve up defenses, regardless of scheme, and neither team features an o-line full of Pro Bowlers.

Partly because of style but also due to circumstance, Roethlisberger is the anti-Branning. Aside from the weekly in-season beatings, there is nothing wrong with this approach; in fact, Big Ben's had more success in his first four seasons in Pittsburgh than any quarterback in NFL history. But this style doesn't suit a long career. And if the aim of his new eight-year, $102 million deal is to keep Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh for the next eight years, something will have to change. Two weeks ago, Big Ben confirmed as much to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Scott Brown.

Ben's sack totals have increased with his responsibilities, but interestingly, as the sacks rose, so too did his passer rating.

Conflating causation and correlation would be the quickest solution to the Steelers' most glaring problem; Roethlisberger and the offensive line could coordinate their efforts to increase the number of sacks next season, and every meaningful passing record would fall in the process. Unfortunately, mistaking cause and effect for a statistical interdependence between events would, in the long run, be worse for Big Ben's career prospects than helmetlessly zipping through the streets of Pittsburgh on a motorcycle. Short of rejiggering the laws of universe, the offensive line is still the team's biggest issue, confounded by losing guard Alan Faneca this offseason. Or is it?

My most accounts, the problems along the offensive line start at center. The Steelers signed Sean Mahan last spring, hoping he or Chukky Okobi or Marvin Philip would emerge in training camp as the clear-cut starter. Mahan won the job (seemingly by default, in retrospect) but appeared to lose the battle on a weekly basis. It never got to the point that Mahan was removed during a particularly appalling performance, or that he his ineptness got him benched. He started 17 games, which makes me wonder if I overstated -- and more specifically, oversimplified -- the repercussion's of Mahan's uneven play.

Mahan wasn't the only Steelers player to underachieve in 2007. Anthony Smith sandwiched truly mindless performances between occasionally inspired efforts, and it eventually led to this. Clark Haggans disappeared for long stretches of the season even though he started 16 games. His four sacks were his lowest total as a starter, dating back to 2004. No Steelers players struggled more than these three, yet only Smith was benched for any length of time. It's hard to argue any position had less depth than center, but after losing Ryan Clark seven weeks into the season, safety wasn't exactly teeming with possibilities. That Smith was relieved of his duties, even temporarily, provides a clue as to who the coaches considered the biggest barrier to winning. I can imagine the confidence draining from Smith's body with the swiftness of a Brady-to-Moss-to-Gaffney 56-yard touchdown pass when this revelation washed over him.

This isn't to suggest Mahan was blameless -- the Steelers thought so much of him they signed the first available center to hit free agency -- just that there was plenty of it to go around on the '07 squad. Ultimately, where we choose to assign responsibility is unimportant; all that matters is that the offensive line improves. (Ryan Clark appears to be back, and Haggans has moved on to Pittsburgh West and will be replaced by LaMarr Woodley.) Clearly. Maybe the heat has clouded my judgment, or the stress-free postseason pace has dulled my memories and lulled me into a false sense of security regarding the o-line. Probably a tad optimistic, I admit, but if we're working from the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, then by improving the center position -- whether it's Mahan, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton, or a yet-to-be-named mystery guest, -- the rest of the line will improve accordingly. There is the little issue of replacing Faneca, something that no amount of hand-waving will magically solve. I've long been a proponent of the notion that playing guard is considerably less challenging than playing tackle. This implies Chris Kemoeatu should, at the very least, be serviceable. He wasn't serviceable enough to beat out a way-too-inconsistent Kendall Simmons last season, which is a legitimate concern. Either way, we'll find out soon enough. If Roethlisberger continues to develop, even incrementally, and follows through on his promise to get the ball out of his hands quicker, Pittsburgh's offense line will benefit. And symbiotically, so will Big Ben, and by extension, the offense as a whole.

This follows logically in a vacuum, but pesky real-life details like injuries, the human condition, and a brutally vicious schedule could all conspire to derail a potentially promising Steelers' season before Halloween.

It could happen -- it has happened -- but for now, from the perspective of mid-June, I'm going with the happy ending. I have all fall to be cynical.

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