Gene Collier: Stable line barometer of Steelers success

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Ben Roethlisberger said yesterday the Steelers' coaching staff informed him it is not exactly enchanted with the vision of his loveliness galloping desperately for first downs during this super-long preseason, though not necessarily in those words.

"Stop that," is how Ben said it was put to him, and though I obviously was not privy to the conversation, I'm guessing a suitable subtext might have been: "There will be plenty of opportunity to run for your life in the regular season if we don't get this offensive line situation straightened out."

Though yesterday was presumed to be the moment of truth for at least the temporary calcification of a starting front five, higher numbers still occasionally pierced the atmosphere.

"We still don't know which five, but I have confidence in that first seven," Roethlisberger said. "Whatever they decide, I know they're going to have confidence in them, and I know those guys are going to have confidence in themselves."

Seven?

Mike Tomlin was working on eight not 48 hours earlier, claiming to have eight "starters," which is a difficult way to run the spread offense. One of football's familiar platitudes is that teams claiming to have two viable starters at quarterback really don't have one, but I'm unaware of any similar bromide regarding teams barely two weeks from the opener claiming to have eight starters for the offensive line.

I imagine it would be ominous.

"The chances of five guys playing next to each other for the whole season are very unlikely anyway," said All-Pro guard Alan Faneca.

That would be a true statement, except that in the case of the Steelers, their recent glorified history was built along offensive lines that remained remarkably intact, which, by the way, is merely a prerequisite for success.

To break it down statistically -- you were afraid of this -- if you establish 100 percent stability as the scenario in which all five starters start all 16 games at their established positions, the offensive line has almost habitually registered 90 percent stability or more for the past five years. In 2002, 91 percent stability meant 10-5-1 in the standings. In '05, 95 percent stability meant 11-5. In '04, 100 percent stability meant 15-1. By alarming contrast then, in '03, 69 percent stability translated into a sickly 6-10.

All this does is demonstrate the falling dominos that unstable offensive lines set to tumbling. Instability first hurts the running game, where brutal precision is mandatory, then deflates the passing game as assignments go unfulfilled because of positional inexperience, miscommunication or trust issues. The result is a ton of three-and-outs, meaning the defense is on the field too long for its own good, no matter celebrated its own good. All of which equals, in a good year, 6-10.

"No," Faneca said flatly when asked if the media is overstating the important of cohesion. "But it's kind of a double-edged sword right now. You like to have the same guys next to you all the time, but you should like it that other guys are getting the chance to learn so that everyone's ready to go if necessary. You know that in the 10th week, you're going to look up all of a sudden and there will be different players there."

Even at 94 percent stability, this team managed to lose half its games last autumn, perhaps a signal clearer than anyone would admit that center Jeff Hartings was ready for retirement and that right tackle Max Starks was capable of playing himself out of the lineup.

It's impossible to know at this point whether Sean Mahan and Willie Colon are the appropriate stabilizers, but yesterday's presumably crucial practice came and went without either being moved off the first unit, and without anyone who could say for certain indicating that things would stay that way.

"We've thoughtfully not said a lot about that publicly," Tomlin said 30 minutes after his team left the field. "We haven't told them yet and we want them to keep competing."

Colon believes the right tackle job is his to lose now but sounds plenty aware that he could lose it to Starks by halftime of the Eagles game Sunday night. Even if he doesn't, he won't feel comfortable until he starts against Carolina a week from tonight, and might not even be fully convinced until he's in a huddle with Roethlisberger on the afternoon of Sept. 9 in Cleveland, when it will actually matter some.

"There's still a long way to go," said Hines Ward. "We're trying different combinations along the offensive line, different combinations a lot of places; we just have to get better and better and I think we are. We haven't even game-planned for these teams yet."

That game plan for Sept. 9 will presume the presence of an effective offensive line. Sometime between now and then, a formidable front five -- not seven or eight -- must become more than a presumption.



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