The Steelers' search for an offensive line has entered the bonus round and may well be settled.
Mike Tomlin said he is closer to deciding on his starting line, yet with the most important preseason game coming up for starters, he already may have picked one.
After admittedly going over the video from the game Saturday night at Washington "with a fine-tooth comb," Tomlin's starting offensive line yesterday could be the one that opens the season in Cleveland Sept. 9.
From left to right they are tackle Marvel Smith, guard Alan Faneca, center Sean Mahan, guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Willie Colon.
Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette asks head coach Mike Tomlin about the offensive line Monday after practice:
"We're getting extremely close," Tomlin said. "We are going to continue to watch those guys. What we're doing with our offensive line is based on the fact that we feel we have eight guys that are capable starters. We are not looking for five. We have eight."
Tomlin called practices yesterday and today as bonuses because teams normally have three practices when they play Sunday as the Steelers do this week.
Before practice yesterday, Mahan acknowledged that whoever ran with the first team most likely would start against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night.
"They haven't really told us yet for sure, but I'd assume [that]," Mahan said.
"We're getting down to the point where we're going to come up with the makeup of the line."
Tomlin listed the other three "starters" as center Chukky Okobi, guard Chris Kemoeatu and incumbent starting right tackle Max Starks, and mentioned them on the same plateau as Mahan, Simmons and Colon.
"It's a compliment to them and what they are capable of," Tomlin said.
"We are going to leave no stone unturned in allowing those guys to have the opportunity to compete. They are competing their butts off. It's coming to the end. We are aware of that. It's taking shape."
Based on yesterday's practice, a quick look at the offensive line:
In the mix
Tomlin did not mention tackle/guard Trai Essex among the eight. Essex started for the injured Smith Saturday, but Smith returned to practice yesterday.
With the starters expected to play into the third quarter against the Eagles, then hardly at all against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte Aug. 30, it generally is a rule that whoever starts the next-to-last preseason game has been anointed a starter for the regular season.
There are exceptions, of course. In a famous case, Chuck Noll started incumbent Cornell Gowdy at strong safety in every preseason game in 1989. He released Gowdy with the final cuts and inserted a rookie as his starter, Carnell Lake.
An offensive line, though, generally needs time together to learn each other's moves, idiosyncrasies and preferences.
"Obviously, you want to be out there and grow a rapport with these guys, but that's never my call," Colon said.
"I just try to go out there and be efficient and try to play hard to the wire."
If indeed the starting line yesterday remains the starting line Sept. 9, two of those who lost out could claim that circumstances beyond their control cost them jobs.
Starks, who started at right tackle during their Super Bowl year and again last season, has moved between right and left tackle this summer. He said he is far from bitter about it.
"What's fair and what isn't fair? We had injuries, so it forced us to have to shuffle some guys around. Our offensive coordinator thought of me enough to say, 'Hey Max, we trust you, let's play left tackle.' I have to look at it as a positive because they had enough faith in me to put me over there.''
The normally conversational Okobi declined to talk yesterday, a stance he first took last week after his oblique muscle was injured in practice. He returned to practice yesterday with the second team.
Okobi has a $2 million salary this season and Starks $1.8 million. The Steelers usually do not pay their backup linemen that much, but they apparently are prepared to do so this season if they do not start.
"I just want to hear the decision and be done with it and move on from it," Starks said. "Wherever I'm suppose to be I'll be. That's the best way to look at it."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 21, 2007 3:45 AM