It's been the draft battle cry ever since we saw that Sean Mahan wasn't the answer at center. But it's not just the poor pivot play that whispers in offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' ear on 3rd-and-short. No, the right guard position is also unstable, even with the improvement Trai Essex has provided over Darnell Stapleton, who provided improvement over Kendall Simmons, who was the biggest disappointment of the last 10 first-round picks made by the Steelers.
There are also problems at the tackle position, particularly if one of the starters is injured, or right tackle Willie Colon leaves in free agency in the coming week, or even next March.
But the foremost problem is the interior of the offensive line, and that's why Mike Iupati and Maurkice Pouncey are considered among the front-runners for pick No. 18 next week. Let's compare and contrast the two big men:
Iupati (6-5.1, 331, 5.28) is a massive road grader who played left guard at Idaho and displayed an affinity for the short pull into the strong side that was made famous in Pittsburgh by Alan Faneca and then Chris Kemoeatu.
Iupati is clearly better on the move than Kemoeatu, but in the Senior Bowl showed that his pass-blocking skills can be just as bad as the Steelers' current LG. Coaches and scouts believe that the 23-year-old Iupati – who moved to California from Samoa as a teenager – only needs better coaching to clean up his problems, and that his size, strength and mobility give him a higher ceiling than Pouncey's.
That's a pretty big leap, considering Pouncey (6-4.4, 304, 5.24) won't turn 21 until July 24. What jumps off the film with Pouncey – beyond the pass-blocking experience as a three-year starter in Florida's offense – is his alertness, enthusiasm and ability to finish blocks. Watch the first drive of the bowl game against Cincinnati to see Pouncey push a small tackle 10 yards deep, and then take a punch in the mouth from the frustrated lineman. Pouncey's reaction was merely to point it out to an official.
For a definition of Pouncey's alertness and enthusiasm in the middle of the line, particularly against delayed blitzes, watch any Florida game and then watch Trent Williams play center in Oklahoma's bowl game. It's obvious Pouncey understands his position, and would also help at guard before moving to his preferred position in the middle.
Even with Pouncey's age, versatility and experience against quality opposition, it's unlikely he'll ever become the run-blocker that Iupati is. Because of that, I'll call Iupati the team's 1-A line prospect and Pouncey 1-B.
Considering Anthony Davis's reputation for having a poor work ethic, the only other first-round lineman who might land with the Steelers is left tackle Bryan Bulaga (6-5.3, 314, 5.24), who could conceivably slip to No. 18.
One reason for a slip is the concept that Bulaga, like Iowa OT Robert Gallery before him, has been so well coached that he's already at his ceiling. Detractors also point to Bulaga's sub-par performance against Brandon Graham. But, that was Bulaga's first game back after losing 10 pounds and missing three games because of a thyroid condition (which he says has cleared up).
Another possibility at center is Zane Beadles (6-4.3, 310), who played left tackle at Utah. The question the Steelers must ask themselves about him, or any center prospect, is: Do they like him better than well-regarded backup Doug Legursky? Some believe the answer after Round 1 will always be "no."
A guard prospect who's rated highly by the Steelers is Rodger Saffold (6-4.5, 316, 5.24), who was a four-year starter at left tackle for Indiana. TCU's Marshall Newhouse (6-3.6, 319, 5.01), Wake Forest's Chris DeGeare (6-3.5, 325, 5.18), LSU's Ciron Black (6-4.4, 327, 5.53) and Tennessee's Chris Scott (6-4.5, 319, 5.54) are also guard projects after playing left tackle in college, which has always been a ratings booster with the Steelers.
First round – Bryan Bulaga, Iowa; Mike Iupati, Idaho; Maurkice Pouncey, Florida.
Third round – Marshall Newhouse, TCU; J.D. Walton, Baylor; Zane Beadles, Utah.
Fifth round – Chris DeGeare, Wake Forest.
Sixth round – Chris Scott, Tennessee.