Consistent Offensive Line Strategy Eludes Steelers - But Does It Matter?

ARLINGTON TX - FEBRUARY 06: Mike Wallace #17 Emmanuel Sanders #88 Heath Miller #83 and Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers huddle with teammates against the Green Bay Packers during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6 2011 in Arlington Texas. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Good stuff here from the man who goes by 'Man of Steel' in Spanish 'Hombre de Acero'. The Argentina based author, who's for quite some time been writing excellent stuff at Steel Curtain Rising, has a thoughtful breakdown of the Steelers offensive line situation in recent history. - Michael B. -

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Browse through the roster that Mike Tomlin will attempt to lead to Lombardi Number Seven and you'll discover a composite story on Steelers successful franchise-building philosophy, "The Steelers Way."

The Steelers Way transcends any one individual. Look to the wide receivers, defensive line, and linebackers and you'll find examples of rookie free agent, first, mid, and late round draft success, and you'll feel the thumb prints of Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher and, with Hines Ward and Aaron Smith, even Tom Donahoe.  

Yes, each position area of the Steelers 2011 roster reveals a deliberate, sustainable competitiveness plan developed by the Black and Gold Braintrust.

Each unit that is, except for...

....the offensive line.

A harsh statement for a team that's been to Three Super Bowls in Six Years? Yes. Too Harsh? Let's find out.

 

Dr. Jekyll Meet Mr. Hyde

 

The Steelers surprised some by locking Willie Colon up with a long term deal. A warm and fuzzy afterglow accompanied Willie Colon's home town discount, but perhaps someone should caution Colon to keep one eye open.

Recent history suggests that such a warning is warranted.

Consider:

Sean Mahan inked a five year deal in '07 then...

  • Pittsburgh traded him back to Tampa Bay a year later

After failing to come to terms with Alan Fanaca, the in 2007 Steelers signed Kendall Simmons to a four year extension in 2007 and then...

  • ...cut him in 2009

In 2008 the Steelers signed Justin Hartwig to a 2 year deal and one year later they re-upped him for four years in 2009, and then...

  • ...cut Hartwig less than a year later.

More instructive yet is the Max Starks saga. Starks got benched in '07, named transition player in '08, franchise player in '09, then signed a four year deal in 2009... only to of course get cut two years later.

Further clouding the record is of the "could haves." Prior to the '08 season the Steelers offered Marvel Smith a long-term deal only to be rebuffed. The Steelers dodged a bullet as injuries ended Smith's career in a pivotal early season match up against Jacksonville.

Raise your hand if you can discern a consistent stable offensive line building strategy in these zig-zags.

It wasn't always like this.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe and then Cowher and Kevin Colbert seemed to have an unofficial policy to use a premium (top 3) pick on a lineman.

Cowher-Donahoe's first pick was Leon Searcy in 1992. They didn't draft a lineman with a premium pick in '93 or '94, but they did so in '95, '96, '97, '98, and ‘99. They also made key free agent signings during this time in the form of Todd Kalis, Tom Newberry and, by far most notably, Wil Wolford in '96.

Some picks failed. Brendan Stai flashed then faded. Photos of Jamain Stevens, Paul Wiggins, Chris Conrad, and Kris Farris could easily accompany any Webster's definition for "bust."

Cowher-Colbert used premium picks to bring in Marvel Smith (2nd, '00), Kendall Simmons (1st, '02) Trai Essex (3rd, ‘05) and Max Starks (3rd, '04) and acquiring Jeff Hartings via free agency. Failures aside, offensive line was always a priority.

In contrast, Tomlin-Colbert, perhaps through no fault of their own, did not use a single premium pick on offensive line in their first three drafts, and their free agent moves (Mahan, Hartwig, and Flozell Adams) have yielded short term impact at best.

Certainly, the picks of Maurkice Pouncy and Marcus Gilbert reverse the trend, but the musical chairs at right guard this preseason show that a long-term offensive line building strategy continues to elude Tomlin and Colbert.

Having established that fact, the next question is, does it matter?

"With free agency the question isn't can a guy play in 2 years, its can he play now." -  Bob Purvis, Cincinnati, Ohio,1997

Bob Pruvis is just an old friend, and no football God (although he did indirectly predict Bill Belichick while Belichick was still best known for his horrendous failure as Cleveland's head coach.)

Free agency and the salary cap were still relatively new to the NFL in 1997, and Bob's point was simple: "The Future is Now in Free Agency."

That philosophy runs against the very grain of "the Steelers way." In fact, Pittsburgh's largely disproven it.

Yet, they seemed to have embraced it on offensive line to good, if not great, effect.

Tomlin and Colbert quickly realized their mistake in Sean Manhan, and traded away him and his salary.

While no world beater, Hartwig was good enough to help them win Super Bowl XLIII, and when it became clear that he'd given all he was going to give, they replaced him with Pouncey.

Max Starks was derided as the league's "most expensive back up tackle" at the start of the 2008 season, but that expensive insurance plan saved the season when Marvel Smith went down.

When I learned that the Steelers cut Starks and planned to start Jonathan Scott, I shuddered, thinking of Jim Wexell's calculation that Ben Roethlisberger was sacked at twice the rate per-drop back with Scott in at tackle.

I remain far from sold on Scott, but Michael Bean's point that Scott offers better bang for the buck is hard to argue with.

Mike Tomlin harps on the imperative of excelling at "situational football." Well, he and Kevin Colbert have played "situational offensive line building" and remained, "above the line."

Be that as it may, the Steelers offensive line has not been a team strength for the past 3 seasons, even if one concedes that Ben Roethlisberger is largely responsible for many if not most of the sacks he takes.

And if the Steelers have succeeded in spite of their line, does that mean that much of the conventional wisdom about winning football goes out the window?

Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks in large part because great offensive lines formed the basis of his offense. A great offensive line played a similar part in Bill Parcells second Super Bowl title.

Conversely, the 2000 Jacksonville Jaguars began the season as Super Bowl favorites who were armed to the teeth at the skill positions, only to finish out of the playoffs because its line fell apart.

In response to a recent post here on BTSC by Ivan Cole, Neal Coolong offered this:

As for the offensive line…I have no clue how that unit made it to two Super Bowls. If anything, it shows evidence suggesting a strong offensive line is overrated. They may have won quite a bit with them, but that does not mean the Steelers should make their Modus Operendi having a substandard offensive line.

Neal's comment reminded me about how after the 2008 draft Mike Tomlin challenged conventional wisdom arguing that a quarterback who has more weapons, needs less from his line. Ed Bouchette defended Tomlin in an on-line chat, and even Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola got in on the debate.

Superficially, events since 2008 would seem to vindicate Tomlin's thesis.

I remain skeptical. The 2008 Steelers succeeded because the offensive line improved, improvement evident from about December onward.

The 2010 edition presents a different story - one of men bonding together in the face of constant injury-induced chaos and ultimately seeing their whole become greater than the sum of their parts.

But Mike Tomlin clearly knows more about football than I do, and the Steelers success is sufficient to call the conventional wisdom on the importance of offensive line into question.

Where does all of this take us? I leave that to you.

  • Do the Steelers have a coherent offensive line strategy unduly ignored here?
  • Can we consider "situational offensive line building" a viable element in a championship-winning strategy?
  • Or has the game of football changed so much that offensive line is less important than it once was?

 

Discuss.

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