It's time to worry about line
by Dale Lolley
The announcer on the stadium's public address system, a feature added just for Wednesday's practice, called the exercise a "passing under pressure drill."
The Steelers' quarterbacks better get used to.
In 17 games last season, including the playoff loss to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh quarterbacks were sacked 53 times.
Not all of those sacks can be blamed on the offensive line. Judging from the first week of training camp, it doesn't look like things are going to get better in 2008.
A casual observer would say either the Steelers defense is really good, or the offensive line just stinks.
Don't get me wrong, Pittsburgh's defense is good. It ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed in 2007.
But let's not confuse the facts. The offensive line is getting manhandled on most plays at Saint Vincent College.
When the first-team offense has gone up against the first-team defense on running plays, most of them end with a pile of bodies in the backfield or, at best, at the line of scrimmage. When the quarterbacks have dropped back to pass, they have been sitting ducks. Fortunately, hitting the quarterback is not allowed in practice.
It hasn't been a pretty sight.
To be fair, Chris Kemoeatu, who is expected to replace Alan Faneca at left guard, and Marvel Smith, the starting left tackle, have each missed time because of injuries. Kemoeatu has a triceps strain and has yet to practice, and Smith sat out Wednesday with a sore groin.
It's not just that the line is looking outclassed in those team blocking drills. The individual work has not been very good.
Second-year man LaMarr Woodley, who will start at left outside linebacker in place of Clark Haggans, has looked unblockable, regardless of who is lined up against him in one-on-one drills. James Harrison, the Pro Bowl right outside backer, has looked just as good.
The Steelers don't seemed concerned. Maybe it's because Kemoeatu hasn't practiced. But it's not realistic to believe he'll be as good as Faneca.
Even with Faneca, last year's line was a mess.
The battle at center between incumbent starter Sean Mahan and newcomer Justin Hartwig hasn't exactly been all that heated.
Mahan, who played below expectations last season, has taken the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense. Hartwig has seen less time than expected. Neither appears to be a long-term answer at the position.
Maybe it's too early in training camp to worry about such things. Maybe the Steelers have some grand scheme to improve Roethlisberger's protection.
Maybe that will include Roethlisberger calling his own plays and running the no-huddle to keep opposing defenses from zeroing in on him.
"In high school and college, when things are going faster and I'm calling stuff, it always seems to work out better for me," Roethlisberger said.
Also, if you don't allow the defense to huddle, those players will probably get tired of chasing him at some point.