GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23: Center Maurkice Pouncey #53 of the Pittsburgh Steelers lines up to hike the ball during their game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
ESPN writer John Clayton has a simple theory when it comes to an offensive line.
Experience only goes so far. A team's starting offensive line cannot exceed a combined age of 150 years. As ESPN's Jamison Hensely points out, this theory will be put to the test inside the AFC North this season, particularly between the "NFL's Hatfields and McCoys," the Ravens and the Steelers.
There is a stark contrast between the two, age-wise. Going off projected offensive lines, By the time the season starts, Baltimore looks to top out at 159 years of age (LT Bryant McKinnie, 33, LG Bobbie Williams, 36, C Matt Birk, 36, RG Marshal Yanda, 28, and RT Michael Oher, 26), while the Steelers, heavy investors in offensive linemen, look to carry nearly four less decades of age than Baltimore (159 to 120), with the assumption rookie LT Mike Adams wins the starting position (Adams, 22, LG Willie Colon, 29, C Maurkice Pouncey, 23, RG David DeCastro, 22, and RT Marcus Gilbert, 24).
Will that matter at all?
The example Clayton points to is the 2007 Chicago Bears offensive line. They, like Baltimore, combined for 159 years of age, and broke down throughout the season. Chicago finished 7-9 a year after winning the NFC championship with that same offensive line intact.
The Steelers didn't just draft a slew of offensive linemen, they drafted them when they were really young, too, something that seems to be a staple of Mike Tomlin's regime as head coach of the Steelers.
LB Lawrence Timmons was 20 when he was the Steelers' first round pick in 2007. Now an experienced veteran, Timmons will be 26 years old when training camp starts. Pouncey, a two-time Pro Bowl selection at center, is 22 years old. Gilbert, the second-oldest starter at 24, has a year of starting experience already.
While Clayton's theory makes sense simply in logic, what's really interesting is how the gap between two two in age right now could be vastly different by 2013. As Hensely points out, the Ravens have drafted OG Kelechi Osemele, OT Jah Reid and C Gino Gradkowski in the last two drafts (second round, third round and fourth round picks, respectively), and all three could be seen as starters at this time next year.
That would make 2012 a year of transition for both teams; the Steelers need to find a way to succeed among that line with two rookies (Adams and DeCastro) while Baltimore will need to prepare for a youth infusion next season while still maintaining a high level of protection now.
The Steelers were a 12-4 team with a sub-standard offensive line in 2011. After addressing the unit as a whole in the 2010 and 2011 drafts (with the selections of Pouncey and Gilbert in the first and second rounds), they went back to it with DeCastro and Adams in 2012. They're going to throw the young guys in the fire early in their careers, and in many respects, it doesn't seem as crazy as trotting out any one of the NFL-high 25 offensive line combinations they did in 2011.
Baltimore's offensive line was strong early last season, but showed some cracks in the playoffs. They've proved to be a dominant rushing team, and, when able to protect QB Joe Flacco, can be a dangerous offensive unit.
The question could end up being whether the lack of Father Time, or his obvious presence, will determine the race for the AFC North crown.