It's a typical Monday on the internet: The Steelers have just escaped with a win against a team they should have blown out, and Behind The Steel Curtain is sporting it's usual panic-stricken posts about the state of our offensive line. They weren't able to create the smallest holes in the running game, their pass protection was borderline criminal, and who let Jonathan Scott on the field anyways?
As is the case after every loss or even close win, the Steelers offensive line is getting showered with criticism, and in some cases rightfully so. Not even this post will dispute that early season performances by the likes of Scott and Doug Legursky have been questionable at best, and frightful at worst. Yet, I feel weirdly optimistic about the state of our offensive line for the coming season. Am I the only one?To be sure, Pittsburgh's offensive line will not be elite in the near future. After being a fan during the past few years, I have come to terms with that. Yet, two Super Bowl appearances with one win in spite of lackluster offensive lines have allowed me to get over the frustration we have all felt when these five guys put together another head-scratcher on a typical Sunday. And I have reason to believe that the future of our offensive line is brighter than it currently looks.
I don't have to talk much about Maurkice Pouncey, a pro-bowl center in his second year that might be in a bit of a sophomore slump right now but has shown his ability to dominate in both run and pass situations. With Pouncey anchoring the line for years to come, Steelers fans have little to worry about a position that just a short time ago was butchered by the likes of Justin Hartwig and Sean Mahan. Pouncey and Roethlisberger are quickly developing a rapport with each other that is both impressive and encouraging. Our center position? Not an issue anymore.
Lining up to Pouncey's left is Chris Kemoeatu, the Tongan-born left guard whom we have come to know for his intimidating or amusing (depending on who you ask) 'Warrior haircuts'. Kemoeatu is a major component of our running game. Almost any time the Steelers backs break a big run, he has a part in it - either through strong straight-ahead blocking or his vintage pulls to the right side, during which he displays an impressive amount of athleticism.
Kemoeatu can be a liability against the pass, but his forceful run blocks remind us that just a few short years ago, he was actually in pro bowl consideration according to some experts. His second weakness is decision making, as he has been whistled multiple times for personal fouls after the play. But let's not forget that #68 is only 28 years old and can still learn from his mental mistakes, which I am positive that he will in coming seasons. Not a great left guard, but serviceable without a doubt.
On the right of Pouncey, we find a big question mark. Doug Legursky got the starting nod after some good performances at center and right guard last season, but has disappointed everyone so far by getting blown off the line in both pass and run situations. Legursky seems more fitted as the primary backup for the three interior line positions than a starter, and much of this year's blame for the offensive line performance has been placed on him.
That leaves us with Ramon Foster as the other possible starter for this year at least, and the former undrafted rookie looked good on the inside against Seattle last week. Even against the Colts, Foster outplayed Legursky after the latter went down, even though he didn't play a stellar game either. Like Kemo on the other side, Foster is a mauler in the run game that could improve on passing downs, but I am strangely comfortable with an interior line of Foster, Pouncey, and Kemo.
Which brings us to the tackles. Clearly, the early going in this season showed that Jonathan Scott is not meant to be this team's left tackle in the present or future. Of all Steelers offensive linemen, his play has been the worst during the first three games when he got manhandled on both rushing and passing downs. But people around here seem to have already forgotten his solid outing after Max Starks went down last year, during which he actually improved from game to game and - Ravens games aside - held his own at the left tackle spot. Scott shouldn't be a starting left tackle in the NFL, but I am not completely opposed to the idea of having him as the primary tackle backup after this year.
But Simon, if Scott isn't good enough, who should start on the left side? Well, we do have this guy that was drafted to be our future at the position anyways. He was supposed to be a backup tackle this season until Willie Colon went down, then started against Seattle on the right side with success and held his own against Pro Bowler Robert Mathis. Speaking of Willie Colon: I refuse to believe that his injuries (as well as the others along the line) are anything but bad luck. He should be back next year and continue playing like he did before his injury.
But back to the new guy. Yes, Marcus Gilbert gave up a Big Ben strip fumble to Mathis, but even on that play he held his own while Ben held on to his own for too long. Above all, Gilbert showed major guts when he went back into the game - this time at left tackle - for the last and game-winning drive because of what looked like a major injury to Scott. Gilbert had been out of the game with a left shoulder injury, but pulled himself together and successfully blocked pro bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney the entire drive. In my book, he looks to have the heart and skill to be the next major left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So where does that leave us? Obviously, I am not arguing that the line will be great or even above average this year. Too many injuries have and will prevent that from happening. In other words, I am already preparing myself for a slew of panic posts on BTSC for every Steelers win or loss. Fortunately, we have a quarterback that has shown he can win behind a questionable offensive line. I predict with relative confidence that we will continue to see our share of Colts games this year, letting an inferior team hang around but pulling out a victory in the end. As long as we come out with the win, I am perfectly fine with that.
It's next year that matters more to me. Looking at our talent along the offensive line, I feel that this could be the one unit that drastically improves from this year to next. Maurkice Pouncey will anchor the middle, flanked on the left by Kemo and Gilbert. On his right side will be Ramon Foster, while Willie Colon will be back to his regular, run-blocking monster self. Backing up inside and outside will be Doug Legursky and Jonathan Scott. Right now, I would take that offensive line - especially given our talent at the skill positions. And let's not forget that the Steelers might not be done drafting offensive line in earlier rounds.
Have I mentioned that I am a helpless optimist? Seeing all the sky-is-falling-threads gave the the urge to write down my feelings about our line. So there it is: the offensive line will be quite a lot better than people give them credit for next year. Now it is your turn to pounce on me :)