Ron Cook: Steelers need to settle on starting line
Share with others:
Saying the Steelers need to stop the juggling act and settle on five offensive linemen is a little like saying the Pirates need to get new ownership. It's a lot easier said than done.
The Pirates' situation is pretty hopeless, actually. Why should the Nuttings have any interest in selling the team when crowds averaging almost 36,000 showed up for the past four games at PNC Park to see a last-place team that's 18 games under .500 and headed toward a 15th consecutive losing season? The Nuttings might be the worst owners in all of sports, but they are shrewd businessmen, very shrewd.
The Steelers' line situation, meanwhile, only appears to be hopeless.
"[Determining the five starters for continuity's sake] is important. We're getting down the road a little bit," coach Mike Tomlin said in Washington the other night. "But these guys are professionals. I think we're going to have cohesion even if we do allow this thing to play itself out."
You expected him to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
What do you want us to do? How can we pick five linemen when we're not entirely sure we have five good ones? How would you like to have to decide between Willie Colon and Max Starks at right tackle? And heaven help us if Marvel Smith goes down. We'd have to ask Alan Faneca to move over to left tackle, but that might not go over so well. It's not as if Big Red is feeling a lot of loyalty to the organization these days ...
No coach is that honest.
The good news is it's Aug. 20, not Sept. 9 when the Steelers have to line up for real against the Cleveland Browns. The team still has time to get it right, at least with the five starters. It's unfair to pronounce final judgment on the group the way Tomlin and his coaches, because of the necessary evaluation process of a new staff, have bounced the linemen in and out of games, from one side of the line to the other, often from series to series. Let's see what the starters -- presumably, Smith at left tackle, Faneca at left guard, Sean Mahan at center, Kendall Simmons at right guard and Colon or Starks at right tackle -- do once they get some work together. It's not hard to think they can be functional. Colon was impressive in his two starts as a rookie late last season, wasn't he? Starks started on the Super Bowl team in 2005, didn't he?
But, make no mistake, the No. 1s had better be in place soon.
The home exhibition game Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles isn't rushing it.
"The more you play together, the better you are," Starks said after the line had a difficult time, to be kind, in the Steelers' 12-10 win Saturday night against the Washington Redskins. "You get to know each other and build together and figure out each other's idiosyncrasies, which is a big part of being an offensive lineman."
Makes sense to me.
That doesn't change the fact that depth has become a troubling issue. Chris Kemoeatu might be able to fill in at guard and Chukky Okobi could play center, but who's going to fill in for Smith? He suddenly ranks up there with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker as players the Steelers can't afford to lose. Starks tried playing left tackle in the first two exhibition games and gave up three sacks. Trai Essex played the position against the Redskins -- Smith was held out for precautionary reasons because of a bad back -- and was generally awful. He missed a block on the first running play, with Parker being thrown for a 1-yard loss. He was called for a tripping penalty when Roethlisberger was sacked in the second quarter. He gave up a sack of backup Charlie Batch in the third.
There's no one else to play left tackle.
Oh, yeah, Faneca.
You know all about his bitterness toward Steelers management as he heads into the final year of his contract. He told the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette last week he would have to think long and hard about moving to tackle if asked, a switch he readily made when the Steelers had injury problems in '03. In the end, because he's such a pro, it's believed he would do it out of loyalty, not to the Rooneys and Tomlin, but to his teammates. Just to be safe, though, Smith had better stay in one piece.
At the risk of being overly simplistic, the Steelers will go as far as the offensive line in general and Smith in particular take them. He and the line didn't have a great year last season; the team went 8-8. He and the line were terrific in '05; the team won the Super Bowl. And who can forget the 6-10 mess in '03 when Smith was out with a neck injury and the line was in disarray?
It's still too early to say how it's going to play out this season.
But it's not too early to say Tomlin needs to make up his mind about his starters and do it like, you know, today.
And it's definitely not too early to say Smith has to stay healthy.
That, perhaps, above all else.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
If Marvel Smith ever goes down will Alan Faneca, above, move over to left tackle?
Click photo for larger image.
First Published August 19, 2007 11:29 pm