Tying up loose ends

Training camp is less than four weeks away and the Steelers' decision to part ways with Najeh Davenport could be good news for Willie Reid, Dallas Baker, and by extension, the offense.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers signed Najeh Davenport off the scrap heap almost two years ago, it pretty much signaled the end of the Duce Staley era. Staley, one of the few "big-name" free agents signed in recent offseasons, had a great start to his career in Pittsburgh, rushing for more than 700 yards in the first seven games of the 2004 season. And then it all went to hell. He suffered a hamstring injury against the Patriots, played in only three more games that year, and managed just one start until the Steelers sent Staley packing four months into 2006.

Davenport came to Pittsburgh after the Packers released him just before the '06 season to fill the void left by just-retired Jerome Bettis and the always-something-wrong-with-him Staley. In two seasons, he played in 18 games and rushed for 720 yards on 167 carries (4.3 yards per average). Not bad for a guy acquired at the last minute to serve as a third-down back and to give Willie Parker the occasional breather. Despite the relative success, I wasn't surprised to hear the Steelers had released him.

Drafting Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the 2008 draft unexpectedly created a glut at the position; with Parker expected to completely healthy after breaking his leg during late last year, and Mewelde Moore a few months into his three-year deal, the two most obvious choices for reassignment were Davenport and former undrafted free agent Gary Russell. Apparently, the coaches felt Russell has more upside, and perhaps more importantly, he's cheaper. The fact that most fans will have forgotten about Davenport by the time training camp starts later this month is a testament to how interchangeable the position is.

For as competent as Davenport was in his third-down/spot-starter role, there were five players sitting by the phone that could've come in and had similar success. Of course, I was shocked to read that Pittsburgh was one of four teams to witness Kevin Jones run a 4.3-40 (on wet grass, no less!), but as Dale Lolley mentioned, Steelers scout Ron Hughes lives in Detroit, and as long as he was making an ice cream run, he decided to stop by the workout just to cover his bases.

Full disclosure: in 2004, when I was young and impressionable and convinced that first-round quarterbacks were overrated (don't say it, I'm well aware of the lunacy; it's sorta like being a Ron Paul supporter), I had hopes the Steelers would either draft a cornerback or a running back. DeAngelo Hall or Kevin Jones, those were the two names that topped my imaginary wish list. I hesitate to think what state of disrepair the franchise would currently find itself if I were running things. I suspect it's a lot like being a Lions fan, an organization, incidentally, that ended up drafting Jones. Funny how that works.

Now Parker, Mendenhall, Moore and Russell fill out the depth chart, and the Steelers, for the first time in more than a decade, won't have a dedicated fat back for short-yardage situations. (You could argue that Davenport wasn't such a player, but since he was listed at close to 250 pounds, I'm loosely including him in the same group as Jerome Bettis and Staley.) Is this a sea change in Pittsburgh's offensive philosophy, or just a tweak as this team becomes more Ben Roethlisberger's? Head coach Mike Tomlin hinted that the team would employ more weapons at the skill positions to compensate for any deficiencies along the offensive line. I don't think that means there isn't room for Bus-type backs in this system, but that, since none are currently on the roster, the coaches have adjusted accordingly.

Which could be good news for Willie Reid and/or Dallas Baker. Last week, Roethlisberger was glowing in his praise of the two young wideouts:

"Through the OTA (practices), and it is without pads, I've been really impressed with Willie Reid and Dallas Baker ... two guys that really stepped up and opened a lot of eyes."

No idea if Big Ben was just being nice or sincere; two years ago, he was effusive in his admiration for Nate Washington, predicting big things from the second-year, small-school receiver. It didn't happen, thanks, in part, to Washington's concentration lapses coupled with Roethlisberger's shaky comeback from various off-field ailments. Is there room on the final 53-man roster for six wide receivers? Maybe. Obviously, there are greater needs on the offensive and defensive lines, but if Reid can prove he can return kicks, and Baker can contribute on special teams, they could both sneak onto the team. Sean Morey made a living as a special teams ace moonlighting as a pass catcher, so it's conceivable, even if improbable (from the perspective of early July, anyway).

Still, the idea of stocking the offense with big-play threats is oddly alluring. I know, as a Steelers fan, I shouldn't be distracted by shiny objects; the 2003 season should serve as a sobering reminder of what happens when a square-pegged offense (run, run, run, punt) gets stuffed into a round-hole mentality (Mularkey for everyone!).

But I admit it; I'm weak. And curious. And unlike '03, Tommy Maddox, who had the mobility of statue, won't be taking snaps behind a dreadful offensive line. Instead, it's Roethlisberger, one of the league's most agile -- and evasive -- quarterbacks, taking snaps ... behind a dreadful offensive line. Or so suggests conventional wisdom.

Frankly, there isn't much to say about the Steelers' offensive line that hasn't been poked and prodded from every thinkable angle this offseason. But there is this: Behind the Steel Curtain's interview with Tunch Ilkin , who offered this thought-provoking response to a question about the state of the o-line heading into '08:

I'll go back to Chuck [Noll] to give you my philosophy. If each position on the offensive line gets just a little bit better, collectively the whole thing gets a whole lot better. Chuck used to talk about cumulative effect and that may well happen this year with the Steelers line. They brought in Justin Hartwig to start, Marvel is healthier and Max Starks look terrific. He is svelte, has been working his tail off and he really looks good. Last year he was taken by surprise by losing his job, but he maintained his poise and looked better and better as the season went on. This year he looks leaner and stronger. You can already see different pieces getting a little better, so the cumulative effect might be a lot better.

Remember also, we had a lot of sacks the last two years, but it's not always the line's fault. Sometimes Ben scrambled when he shouldn't have, and sometimes he scrambled right into a sack. Sacks can result by the style of play calling as much as anything else, so there are different ways we can attack the sack issue.

I love the "get just a little bit better" philosophy, but two things that struck me as particularly worrisome: what happens if the opposing defenses "get just a little bit better," too? Also, what if -- God forbid -- the o-line "gets a little big worse"? Does Big Ben leave the field on pieces?

First, if the Steelers' o-line improves -- even with a similar improvement by the defenses -- Pittsburgh also has a more experienced, smarter, and presumably better quarterback, and a variety of options at running back and wideout. On paper, I don't envision many (any?) defenses coming into a game next season with the edge. Second, barring a run on injuries, there's no way this unit gets worse. We now know that Mahan wasn't an adequate replacement for Jeff Hartings; hopefully, Hartwig solves that problem. Yes, Alan Faneca is gone, but in the end, Hartings may prove to be the bigger loss. This isn't to say Faneca wasn't an integral part of the Steelers' success during his 10-year run, just that I feel much better about Kendall Simmons/Chris Kemoeatu/Willie Colon taking over the left guard job compared to Mahan succeeding Hartings.

But it's barely July; a lot can change in four weeks.

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