Monday, March 24, 2008
Steelers' No. 1 concern is their offensive line
By Matt Williamson
As the NFL draft approaches, "SportsCenter" is putting every NFL team with a first-round pick "On the Clock," and Scouts Inc. will break down each team and look at what questions still need answering.
While the Steelers won the AFC North in Mike Tomlin's first season as a head coach, this team fell apart late in the year. Much of the Steelers' problems were due to injuries, namely DE Aaron Smith's biceps tear and RB Willie Parker's broken leg. Regardless, the way Pittsburgh finished the 2007 season has to be a concern going forward. The Steelers struggled to put teams away for much of the season and this was especially true in their home playoff loss to Jacksonville. The offensive line allowed an inordinate amount of sacks and was unable to push the pile when the Steelers needed it most in the running game. However, Ben Roethlisberger established himself as probably the top quarterback in football outside of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Tomlin's first full offseason is crucial in determining if the Steelers become a true contender next season.
The Steelers are not big believers in spending a small fortune for other teams' free agents, but RB Mewelde Moore was an excellent economical signing and Tomlin obviously is quite familiar with the do-it-all running back from their time together in Minnesota. Moore will do quite a bit for Pittsburgh including spelling Parker, who was overworked last year, be the third-down back and give Roethlisberger a fine safety value option out of the backfield. However, he will be contribute the most on special teams. He will most likely be the primary kickoff and punt returner. Plus, he will help on coverage teams. His special teams' contributions cannot be overlooked for a team that really struggled in this phase of the game. Keyaron Fox was signed from the Chiefs to also help on special teams.
Pittsburgh recently inked Justin Hartwig. Center was possibly the weakest position for the Steelers last year and while Hartwig isn't a Pro Bowl-caliber center, he is an instant upgrade over Sean Mahan and eliminates a draft day need. Plus, while it wasn't an addition, locking up Roethlisberger for the long term was also extremely important for the future of this franchise.
The obvious loss for the Steelers was perennial Pro Bowl LG Alan Faneca. The Jets paid outrageous money for his services, but it was a forgone conclusion he would leave town before free agency even opened. Pittsburgh felt he was replaceable and not worth investing a fortune in at this stage of his advanced career. While he is still a very good player, the arrow is beginning to point down on Faneca and his fantastic natural skills are beginning to decline. However, the Steelers' offensive line was a real weak area last year, even with Faneca, who was probably their best lineman. WR Cedrick Wilson was released last week and it is also expected that starting outside linebacker Clark Haggans will sign elsewhere and give way to LaMarr Woodley.
There are several starting spots on the line up for grabs right now. The offensive line remains a question mark for Pittsburgh. Faneca is gone and the Steelers will have to rely on the draft to improve their front five. It seems very likely Pittsburgh's transition player, Max Starks, will be back and his ability to play both tackle spots is certainly valuable. Pittsburgh's defensive line is also getting up in age and the Steelers absolutely need to find young, developmental depth at defensive end. A big wide receiver is also on the wish list and they could use one more contributor in their secondary.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.