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O Line and the Draft - how we got here

How did the vaunted Steelers running game come to this?  Why has Big Ben continued to be hit, harrassed and sacked since taking over the starting position?  Why are the Steelers struggling in short yardage and at the goalline?

My contention is that a fundamental shift has occurred from the top down which has affected every aspect of the team.  On offense, the Steelers have changed who they re-sign, who they draft, and how they are going to go about winning their next Super Bowl.  I believe that the leadership of the organization has gambled and is now about to bust out on this season.  Meaning, they were a Super Bowl team last year and will struggle to win the division or gain a wild card spot this season.

The Steelers have more than enough offensive weapons, too much money invested in too few players and an aging defense which is having a hard time defending a good passing attack. By putting the onus on Ben and the receiving corps to move the ball through the air, they have become a team which seemingly wants to outscore their opponents.  The Steelers of old won by possessing the ball and playing an attacking style of defense which denied their foe's running game, made them one dimensional and opened up the blitz scheme when teams sought to come from behind. 

That worked for a long time but that model is losing ground for three reasons:

1)  The Steelers can't cover all those guys.  Other teams are gaining on the Steelers defense by use of personnel, formations and play calling.  The Super Bowl was a microcosm of how the league is getting ahead of the Steelers.  Pass early, pass often and force the Steelers marquise pass rushers to cover quick receivers instead of stuffing the run and rushing the passer.  How do you stop Harrison and Woodley from doing what they do best?  You force them into coverage.  How?  You send 4 or 5 receivers onto the field and send them all out into the secondary.  The Steelers coverage unit is not equipped to stop a quick passing attack. 

Why you say?  Because the Steelers have spent too much money on linebackers who can run forward and not enough money on DBs who can backpedal and cover wide receivers.  The William Gay phenomenon is alive and well.  Games against New England, New Orleans and even Baltimore have shown that mismatches in the pass game are killing the Steelers.

Since the 2006 draft, the Steelers have not drafted a DB in rounds 1 or 2.  Their 3 top selections since then are all 3rd rounders, none of them are on the starting unit nor do they scare any offensive coordinator. 

2)  The Steelers are not commited to running the ball.  That would be fine if they could keep Roethlisberger upright and unmolested.  They have so much money invested in players who can not block, that they have undermined their ability to run the ball effectively and consistently get the ball downfield.  Their roster bears this out .  They have no true FB, one decent TE, one first round draft pick on the line and lots of offensive skill players who never know if Ben is going to be running for his life or on his ass by the time they planned on getting the ball. No veteran FA has been signed in the off season to improve the offensive line.

3)  The Steelers are not commited to building a dominant Offensive or Defensive Line.  The Steelers won SB 43 with a banged up and maligned offensive line.  This may have emboldened the front office to try and get just enough line play while saving money to spend elsewhere.  Pouncey is the only guy on offensive line who is a #1 draft pick.  But this strategy seems to have started after winning SB 40 in 2005.  Since the 2006 draft, the Steelers have chosen 10 offensive linemen.  Of these, they have drafted only 2 offensive linemen in rounds 1, 2 and 3 combined. That means that with the 18 picks in those top three rounds in the last 6 NFL drafts, the Steelers got 1 starter on the offensive line through the draft. 

Unfortunately, the same can be said of the defensive line.  They only have 2 picks out of those 18 draft slots used on D linemen. 

They drafted 4 linebackers in that same time frame in rounds 1,2 and 3.  They drafted a total of 50 players in that time and selected 8 linebackers.  That's all well and good if you have a decent offensive line.

Current Steelers Offensive Linemen

Trai Essex                 2005 3rd round selection        25 career starts

Ramon Foster           UFA 2009                                     13 career starts

Marcus Gilbert         2nd round selection 2011          2 career starts

Chris Kemoeatu       2005 6th round selection         47 career starts

Doug Legursky         UFA 2008                                        7 career starts

Jamon Meredith       2009 5th round by Packers        0 career starts  This is his 5th NFL team in 3 seasons

Maurkice Pouncey   2010 1st round selection         19 career starts

Chris Scott                 2010 5th round selection            0 career starts

Jonathon Scott         2006 5th round by Lions             26 total, 12 starts for Steelers

The group of linemen above is made up of two guys who can play the part - one very well and we know who that is.  Kemo is average and the rest of these guys are either retreads or duds.  Chris Scott and Jamon Meredith are sucking up two valuable roster spots, while Trai Essex is on a one year contract and has never contributed much.  Most of these guys are slow and marginally athletic.  The Steelers need to get back to drafting quality offensive linemen.  They won 2 Super Bowls largely through great defense and a much better offensive line.  Faneca, Smith and Simmons were selected in the first, second and first rounds respectively. 

Below you will find who the Steelers picked versus who they could have picked in those drafts for the offensive line.  The Steelers selections are in bold.  Note the large group of quality linemen available in 2006, 2007 and 2009.  Would we be a better team today if we had just 1 or 2 of these guys on our active roster?  I say yes.  The wealth of linebackers and receivers doesn't seem to offset the problems at offensive line (and defensive back).  Having Timmons and Worilds is nice but the Steelers can't afford them plus Foote, Farrior, and the rest.  Too many roster spots for the same position.  What say you?

2006

Santonio Holmes             WR         1st round#25      61 starts, SB 43 MVP

Traded away 2nd round pick to move up in 1st round

Offensive linemen still available: 

Nick Mangold                    C             1st round  #29       82 consecutive starts since drafted

Winston Justice                T              2nd round #39      41 starts

Deuce Lutui                        G           2nd round #41      72 starts

Marcus McNeill                 T               2nd round #50      76 starts

Daryn Colledge                 G             2nd round #47      79 starts

Andrew Whitworth            G             2nd round #55     73 starts

Jeremy Trueblood            T              2nd round #59     71 starts

Chris Chester                    G             2nd round #56      49 starts            also played TE for 4 weeks in 2008.

2007

Lawrence Timmons        LB             1st round#15    33 starts.  

Lamar Woodley                LB           2nd round#46      50 starts               2009 Pro Bowl. 

Offensive linemen still available:

Joe Staley            T              1st round #28      53 starts               Moved from RT to LT in '08. 6 yr. extension in 2009.

Ben Grubbs        G             1st round#29       61 starts

Arron Sears        G             2nd round#35    31 starts               2007 NFL All-Rookie award.  Concussion injury since 2009.

Justin Blalock     G             2nd round#39      65 starts

Tony Ugoh          T              2nd round#42      27 starts

Ryan Kalil             C             2nd round#59      50 starts               Pro Bowl 2010 & '09 2nd team. 

.....2011 franchise tag, Currently highest paid Center in NFL history                  

Samson Saetele                  C/G      2nd round#60      62 starts               2007 All Rookie Team

2008

Rashard Mendenhall     1st round #23    32 starts

 Limas Sweed                    2nd round#53      0 starts                Released August 2011 after 2 years on non-football Injured list and IR.

Offensive linemen still available:

Duane Brown    T              1st round#26       47 starts               Started every game at LT since drafted

Chilo Rashal        G             2nd round#39      38 starts

Mike Pollack       G             2nd round#          34 starts

2009 

Ziggy Hood         DE          1st round#32      10 starts               

Kraig Urbik         G             3rd round#79     0 starts                 Since released in Sept. 2010 has 4 starts at Buffalo Bills

Offensive linemen still available:

Eben Britton       T              2nd round#39      23 starts

Max Unger         C/G        2nd round#49      20 starts

Andre Levitre    G             2nd round#51      35 starts               2009 NFL All-Rookie team

Phil Loadholt      T              2nd round#54      34 starts

Sebastian Volmer  T        2nd round#58      25 starts               AP 2010 All Pro Team

William Beatty   T              2nd round#64      9 starts

2010

Maurkice Pouncey          1st round#18      19 starts              2010 Pro Bowl.

Jason Worilds                   2nd round#52      0 starts

Bryan Bulaga      T              1st round#20       15 starts               NFL All-Rookie team

Rodger Saffold  T              2nd round#33    16 starts               Voted to multiple All Rookie teams

Zane Beadles     G             2nd round#45      17 starts               Sporting News' All-Rookie Team

Vladimir Ducasse  T         2nd round#61      0 starts                

Charles Brown   T              2nd round#64      0 starts

2011

Cameron Heywood  DE 1st round#31      0 starts

Marcus Gilbert T              2nd round#63      2 starts

Offensive linemen still available:

Derek Sherrod  T              1st round#32       0 starts

Orlando Franklin  T          2nd round#46      3 starts

Stefen Wisnewski  G      2nd round#48      3 starts                 Central Catholic and Penn State alum

Ben Ijalana          G             2nd round#49      0 starts

Rodney Hudson  C           2nd round#55      0 starts

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