Cook: Young linemen have room to improve

August 10, 2012
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Didn't have the nerve Thursday to ask Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger if it's exciting to play with young offensive linemen.

Didn't figure rookie offensive tackle Mike Adams would like the answer much.

Step back in time for a moment, back to the opening game of the 2004 season. Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox went out with a elbow injury in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. All-Pro guard Alan Faneca was asked if it was "exciting" to have the chance to play with the team's No. 1 draft choice.

You know, Roethlisberger.

"Exciting? No, it's not exciting," Faneca said. "Do you want to go to work with some little, young kid who's just out of college?"

"I had forgotten about that," a grinning Roethlisberger said early in the week when reminded of Faneca's candid observation.

Roethlisberger is much too diplomatic to offer such an honest assessment. But he couldn't have been thrilled by what he saw from the group -- or the Steelers offense in general -- in their 24-23 exhibition loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. There were many problems, not just during his one series, but in the first half with many of the starters still playing. The Eagles -- without top defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin -- had four sacks in the first two quarters, two each of Roethlisberger and backup Byron Leftwich.

It's just one game, of course.

The first game, at that.

But the early assessment is clear: It won't matter who's calling the plays -- new offensive coordinator Todd Haley had something of a dud in his much-anticipated debut -- unless the line plays a lot better.

Before the game, Roethlisberger said he would be comfortable if rookies Adams and guard David DeCastro won starting jobs. "I know coach [Sean] Kugler is going to put his best five guys out there." But Roethlisberger made it clear we shouldn't automatically anoint the young kids. He mentioned veterans Trai Essex and Ramon Foster and talked of injured tackle Max Starks possibly rejoining the lineup before the regular-season opener Sept. 9 in Denver.

It's fair to say nothing happened against the Eagles to change Roethlisberger's mind.

"I have to look at the tape before I can comment," he said after the game.

No. 2 pick Adams and No. 1 DeCastro were in the starting lineup. Adams was at left tackle because he beat out Essex early in training camp. DeCastro started at right guard because Foster moved over to left guard in place of Willie Colon, who was out with a minor ankle injury. Colon has been the hit of camp and surely would have helped.

DeCastro played the entire first half and didn't give up a sack. He also had a nice block on a 33-yard run by Jonathan Dwyer in the second quarter. That was the one highlight of the running game, which produced just 36 yards on 15 other carries in the first half.

Adams had a much rougher time trying to protect his quarterback's blind side. He was beaten twice upfield for sacks -- Roethlisberger was the helpless target on the first -- by Eagles defensive end Philip Hunt. Adams left the game after the final play of the first quarter with a right knee injury. Coach Mike Tomlin described the injury as "less significant" than the serious knee injury to fullback/tight end David Johnson.

"I made sure I talked to [Adams]," Roethlisberger said. "He was hurting. I told him I'm supportive of him."

None of the Steelers linemen excelled. Foster appeared to be the primary victim on a sack of Roethlisberger that was shared by linebacker Brian Rolle and defensive end Darryl Tapp. Essex was beaten on a sack of Leftwich by linebacker Brandon Graham. Doug Legursky, who replaced center Maurkice Pouncey after the first series, couldn't cut off defensive tackle Derek Landri on a third-and-goal running play from the Eagles 4 with troubling results. Rookie running back Chris Rainey was thrown for a 9-yard loss and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

Haley's play-calling in the first half was conservative to a fault. Only once in the 16-play opening drive, which ended with a field goal, did Roethlisberger take a shot downfield, his pass for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders overthrown. The Steelers had 17 pass plays in the first two quarters -- counting the four sacks -- and the 16 running plays. Mostly, it was dink-and-dunk.

"We were very limited ... I don't want to say limited, we just didn't have a lot," Roethlisberger said.

Asked about the many dump-offs to the running backs, Roethlisberger said, "Those were the guys who were open while I still had time."

Certainly, the absence of wide receiver Mike Wallace had something to do with Haley's play-calling. He was the Steelers' home-run hitter in the past three seasons when he bothered to play. But the weak line play also had to be a factor. Roethlisberger and Leftwich often were under pressure, not just on the sacks.

Repeat after me: It's just one game. The first game, at that.

Go back to 2004 again. Faneca grew fond of Roethlisberger in a hurry. Roethlisberger helped the Steelers to 16 consecutive wins before they finally were beaten by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.

The good news on this steamy night in Philadelphia?

Adams, depending on his knee, and DeCastro have time to improve and grow on Roethlisberger.

So does the offense.