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fordfixer
02-21-2009, 10:27 PM
Steelers report: Inside slant

Feb. 21, 2009

http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/teams/report/PIT/11408217


Pittsburgh enters the 2009 season the same way it entered 2008. The Steelers need linemen, on both sides of the ball.

Mike Tomlin declared one year ago that they needed to get bigger and better on both sides, and they did neither. They drafted offensive tackle Tony Hills in the fourth round and that was that. They did sign center Justin Hartwig as a free agent, and he was an improvement.

They did not draft a defensive lineman, and they're getting old there with five of their top six over 30. They will get old fast in that line if something isn't done soon and without a good line, their outstanding linebackers will not look as good as they do now.

"Yeah, you want to add some young talent if you can at any position, but defensive line is probably one of the older positions on our team," said Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh's director of football operations.

Defensive end Aaron Smith will be 33 in two months, nose tackle Casey Hampton turns 32 before the season and end Brett Keisel 31.

And while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger kept boosting his offensive line publicly throughout the season, he needs better protection than he's gotten. Roethlisberger has been sacked 139 times in the past three seasons and while some of those happen because of his style, poor blocking also is a factor.

They will receive a boost with the return of starting guard Kendall Simmons, who left after four games with a torn Achilles tendon. But the have four unrestricted free agents to go with restricted free-agent tackle Willie Colon. They're not likely to improve vastly overnight, but keeping at least two free agents such as guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackle Max Starks will help with their consistency as a line, and allow them to add some building blocks through the draft.

They took a big step toward that when they put the franchise tag on Starks on Thursday. Starks will earn $8,451,000 in salary for the 2009 season. Starks was named a transition player by the Steelers last season and guaranteed $6.9 million, but he did not become a starter until Smith left the fifth game with back problems. Starks started every game after that.

There is still concern about their line as they try to keep a few before they can become free agents.

"You can say that because of the number of sacks but again the ultimate result you can't argue with," Colbert said. "So, sure, you're going to look at it critically and say, 'OK what can we do to get better?' However, in the back of your mind you're always going to think even though Area A or Area B may not be where you want it to be when you put it together collectively, it worked.

"Now again, you have to be honest about it and the sacks are something they've been here, that's part of how we operate. And part of that is because we have a great quarterback who makes game-winning decisions or performances by not always being by the book. That's who he is. That being said, we also have to try to continue to improve in that area. I'm sure he doesn't like taking hits at the expense of making big plays that result in Super Bowl victories. But he is who he is, and it's our job to try to keep that talent around him and to keep improving it."