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The Steelers Other Maginot Line

Thanks to Swissvale for posting an outstanding Maginot Line reference about the defense in 2009.  He was spot on.  The Steelers have another Maginot Line going on these days, literally a line.  The defensive backfield is similar to the offensive line.

I have seen too many times now the notion that "the offensive problems were schematic and the defensive problems were personnel."  While such is a handy license for those who wish to bash the offense and exonerate the defense, this perfect little alibi is a gross miscalculation.  There are no personnel problems with the skill people on offense, but major personnel problems with the offensive line.  To lump the two together is erroneous.

Over the last seven NFL Drafts, every single aspect of the football team, except for the offensive line, has been gifted with at least one first-round draft choice.  The quarterback position (Big Ben) was given #11 overall (2004), the running back position (Mendy) was given #25 (2008), the wide receiver was given a middle first in 2006 (Tone) and middle second in 2008 (Limas).  Even the tight end (Heath) was granted a first rounder (2005).  On defense, the line was bolstered at the last draft with a number one (Ziggy), a guy who helped significantly to minimize the loss of Aaron Smith.  The linebackers were given both one and two in 2007 (Timmons and Woodley) and given a two in 2003 (Alonzo Jackson).  The defensive backfield was graced with a high number one (Troy in 2003), moving up in the draft to get him, plus two number two picks (Colclough in 2004 and McFadden in 2005).  Granted, not all of them panned out, but at least we tried.

While every phase was being bolstered by first-round franchise cornerstones, plus an extra smattering of number two picks for good measure, the offensive line has been given neither a one nor a two.  I am one who believes the offensive line is the most important part of a football team, right up there with the quarterback, and yet it has been given the least since 2002.  From 1998 to 2002, the Steelers drafted three offensive linemen in the one and two spots (Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons).  When all three were in their final year with Pittsburgh, Bruce Arians ran the ball more than any team in the NFL except two. People conveniently forget that the Steelers, under Pass Happy Arians, were a running football team in 2007, third in the league in rushing attempts.

Since 2007, actually during 2007, the wheels began falling off the offensive line, one by one.  The best of the bunch, Alan Faneca, took off for New York and joined three other first-round linemen.  Now let's see, that's four first-round offensive linemen for the Jets and how far did they go this year with a rookie quarterback?  Kendall and Marvel both suffered career-ending injuries.  Max Starks, in bizarre fashion, went from starting right tackle, to getting benched, to getting franchised, to starting left tackle.  Say what?  Sean Mahan was brought in to succeed Jeff Hartings, and succeed he did not.  That little experiment was dispatched for Justin Hartwig, whose current mediocrity improves the Mahan situation, but clearly ended the Steelers great lineage of superior NFL centers.

Meanwhile, our right tackle is a guy who everyone in the Nation, from Jim Wexell to my own little Maryrose, insists is a right guard.  Another guy out of position, Darnell Stapleton, a center who was called upon to play guard since no one else can do it, suffered a season-ending injury before the season began.  His replacement was a career back-up (Trai Essex), meaning that we are now relying on back-ups to back-ups.  And let's not forget that Chris Kemo went down, paving the way for an undrafted free agent to fill in that spot.  So while everyone is blaming the 2009 Defensive Stock Market Crash on the loss of Troy, the entire offensive line is going to hell in a handbasket.  Those injuries don't count?  On offense it's all schematic (Arians) problems?

In truth, the 2009 Steelers' defensive backfield was on par with the 2009 Steelers' offensive line, awful.  Losing Troy was like the line losing Faneca.  Trying to patch William Gay and Tyrone Carter and trying to keep Deshea young was painfully similar to the musical chairs and patchwork that the offensive line has been going through since 2006.  Making matters worse for the offensive line, they haven't had a decent coach since Russ Grimm.  Not only has the offensive line had major personnel problems, the guy leading them was a personnel problem himself.

The result is that the defensive backfield and offensive line cost the Steelers the 2009 season and is costing the Steelers a chance at dynasty.  The good news is that hopefully both of those entities have hit rock bottom and have already begun their ascent.  Troy will be coming back and Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett will be (hopefully) in that year-two surge.  One of those two young guys, or a 2010 draft pick, has got to step up and avoid the calamity of 2009.  On offense, the new line coach can assess what we have and beg for an injection of new talent.  Maybe we'll throw the new guy a bone and give him, finally ending the seven-year drought, a first-round and/or second-round lineman.

Teams Since 2003 Drafting O-Line in First and Second Rounds:

Five Players: 1 Team (SF)

Four Players: 2 Teams, including AFC North Baltimore who understands the importance of running in the Division

Three Players: 6 teams, including Cincy and Cleve, ditto like Baltimore

Two Players:  13 teams

One Player:  8 teams

Zero Players: 2 teams, Pittsburgh and Washington (great company)

Keep in mind, the above numbers do not include great players taken before 2003 who stayed healthy and on the team.  Guys like Matt Light, Jeff Saturday, and many others add to the quality of their lines in addition to high draft choices since 2003.  The Steelers high choices in that grouping, Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons, have all left the team due to free agency or career-injuries.  The above numbers would look even worse if you added all those guys.  That creates more urgency for the Steelers to re-commit to drafting high-choice linemen.

If Art Rooney II is sincere about running the football, and I believe he is, he needs to put his money where his mouth is.  We've already seen evidence by dispatching Larry Zierlein and bringing in Sean Kugler.  Now let's see more evidence on April 22.  There will be no excuse this year that "all the good ones are gone and we don't want to reach."  That won't hold water this year.  The Steelers pick 18th and there are at least seven offensive lineman who are worthy of that spot.  Every aspect of the team, except one, has been given love since 2003.  Let's end that lone exception, and leave Washington behind as the only remaining team not to draft a first or second round offensive lineman since 2003.