Line of questions for Steelers
By Joe Starkey
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
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You hear it over and over again, never more so than in the wake of the Philly flop:
The offensive line stinks because the Steelers haven't made it a priority in the draft.
First of all, that was a team effort Sunday - an equal opportunity disaster on offense. Second, it's way too early to render a verdict on the line. Consider that left guard Chris Kemoeatu was making just his second road start, against a very good defense.
Could we give him, oh, another quarter or two before we write him off?
Lastly, while it's true the Steelers haven't drafted an offensive lineman in the first two rounds since 2002, taking linemen high in the draft hardly is a prerequisite to winning Super Bowls.
Exhibit A: The '70's Steelers, who won four Super Bowls without a single first-round pick on their offensive lines.
Exhibit B: Four of the past five Super Bowl champs. Only the 2005 Steelers had a front built with high draft picks. Three-fifths of that line remain, by the way, including a $6.9 million tackle (Max Starks) who suddenly couldn't crack the lineup after starting all 20 games in the championship season.
Here's a look at the offensive lines of the other four recent winners, left to right, with their draft position:
New York Giants, Super Bowl XLII
David Diehl: fifth round
Rich Seubert: undrafted
Shaun O'Hara: undrafted
Chris Snee: second round
Kareem McKenzie: third round
Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl XLI
Tarik Glenn: first round
Ryan Lilja: undrafted
Jeff Saturday: undrafted
Jake Scott: fifth round
Ryan Diem: fourth round
New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVIII
Matt Light: second round
Russ Hochstein: fifth round
Dan Koppen: fifth round
Joe Andruzzi: undrafted
Tom Ashworth: undrafted
New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXIX
Light, Andruzzi and Koppen, plus:
Stephen Neal: undrafted
Brandin Gorin: seventh round
Add 'em up, and you have 17 players, seven of whom (41 percent) came into the league as undrafted free agents. Five were taken from the fifth round down. One was a first-rounder.
Moral of the story? Linemen do, in fact, grow on trees, but you need to find ones that fit your offensive identity and develop them accordingly.
And that goes back to player evaluation and coaching.
Generally, the Steelers do a fine job evaluating players, but they're guilty of several false starts with the offensive line of late.
Clearly, they have misidentified the right guys to pay. All you need to know is that within a year's time, they committed $47 million to Sean Mahan, Starks and Kendall Simmons -- two backups and an average right guard -- even as they shut their wallet on Alan Faneca.
This column initially supported the jettisoning of Faneca, believing the Steelers should allocate resources elsewhere. But that was before they signed Simmons to a five-year, $23 million deal, before they signed Mahan to a five-year, $17 million deal and before they made Starks -- perhaps accidentally -- one of the highest-paid backup linemen in the history of organized football.
Geez, they could have thrown $40 million at Faneca and still had enough to overpay Starks. If that meant avoiding Mahan and losing Simmons, well, I think the franchise would have survived.
Trading Mahan helped to mitigate the problem, but the stain on the front-office resume remains.
Meanwhile, the jury's still out on line coach Larry Zierlein and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who were two of Mike Tomlin's first hires (Arians was promoted; Zierlein was brought in from Buffalo).
The pressure all around will ease a bit if the Steelers keep Terrell Suggs & Co. at bay Monday night against Baltimore.
If not, this line of questioning will continue.
Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at [email="email@example.com"]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email].