In order to have a cohesive offensive line and for that matter a cohesive offense as a whole, the interior of an offensive line has to be able to hold their own and win the famed 'battle of the trenches.' We all know that the Steelers struggled with pressure up the middle in 2007 and at times, Ben simply had no time to even brace himself (Dewayne Robertson in Jets game). They'll be hard pressed to improve in 2008 considering that the best interior lineman is now wearing another teams jersey but there is hope that the unit as a whole can be greater than any one player individually. But will it be enough?
The Incumbent Starters/Front-Runners: The starters last year were (from right to left) Kendall Simmons, Sean Mahan and Alan Faneca. Faneca is in New York now and if the season started today, Chris Kemoeatu would start at left guard. Kemo is a passionate, physical and at time wreckless player who is a road-grader in the running game. His lack of control at times and his poor pass protection have kept him off the field until now. He's recently been praised by the coaching staff though who think that he can step in admirably for the departed Faneca. In order to make a case for Simmons and Mahan, you'd have to consider what the offensive line went through in 2007. Simmons, 76 career starts, is a veteran who was playing with a inexperienced tackle to his right and a center playing out of position to his left. It led to his worst season as a professional and off season surgery. He gave up the second most sacks of anyone on the offensive line and was equally bad in the running game. Mahan, a free agent signee from Tampa, played out of position at center and lacked the strength to handle nose tackles. He is undersized (6'3 301) and had tremendous problems in both pass protection and run blocking. There are some though that think a second consecutive year working together would improve the games of Simmons and Mahan.
The Challengers: While fans can be underwhelmed by the lack of Pro Bowl talent at guard and center, they certainly can't be discouraged by a lack of warm bodies. The newcomer, is another free agent signee Justin Hartwig. Hartwig has solid starting experience at center and if he can stay healthy, something he couldn't do in Carolina, he will instantly upgrade the center of the offensive line. He's got the size and quickness to not only handle the point of attack but also hold his own against pass rushers. Lurking in the shadows at the center position is second year pro, Darnell Stapleton. He was an undrafted rookie last year but the coaching staff thought enough of him to keep him over a two players who were either more experienced or drafted higher. He's gained the weight necessary to play center at an NFL and took reps with the first team at guard this spring. Some fans, myself included, see him as the center of the future and considering that he'll turn 23 in a couple of months, they have time to be patient with the kid. Don't be surprised though if he gets some rave reviews again this year during camp and if Mahan and Hartwig don't perform, he could get his chance (someone at NFL.com likes him b/c he's already listed at the starter). Another dark horse in the mix at guard is Willie Colon, last year's 16 game starter at right tackle. The first thing that most people say when they see Colon is that he looks like a guard, but to this point in his career the coaching staff have kept him at tackle. If he loses the job to Max Starks early in camp, he could finally start getting reps inside. His added competition could be enough to push Simmons back to the player that he was a couple of seasons ago. If he ends up as a backup though, it's conceivable that he could be the primary backup at RT, RG and LG.
So we've ranted and raved about the offensive line since week 4 of last season, but is the solution on the roster? Here's your last chance to predict the starting lineup for week one before camp starts. Is Stapleton the future or just another guy? Is Kemo the answer at LG?