Steelers Sunday Spotlight: The O-Line ... changes in store
Max Starks was arguably the team's best lineman last season. But he is also likely to be gone before the team gets to Latrobe this summer.
Like center Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro -- last season's first-round draft pick -- epitomizes the long, lean body type the Steelers seek to employ on the offensive line.
Maurkice Pouncey has been in the NFL for three years, and for three years he's been an AFC Pro Bowl selection.
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The Steelers offensive line will have a different look in 2013, not just in personnel but also in execution.
At least, that is the intent of offensive coordinator Todd Haley and the team's new offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell Jr.
And for good reason.
If the Steelers are interested in running the ball more effectively -- something that didn't happen in 2012 -- they might have to do more than change the people who are blocking up front. They might have to change how they are blocking, too.
And that also would mean finding the right type of running back to fit the schemes that are being employed.
Despite a change in roster makeup to emphasize running the ball better, the Steelers went the other way last season, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry on the ground after averaging 4.4 yards per pop with basically the same personnel in 2011.
Offensive lines are sometimes graded on the protection they afford their quarterback, and, at times, that was much better in 2012 than it has been, especially in two of the games when Charlie Batch had to replace Ben Roethlisberger.
But the true measure of how a line performs is often determined by how effectively a team runs the ball. And that is something the Steelers did not do very well in 2012, other than a three-game span in the middle of the season when they had three consecutive games with a 100-yard rusher -- something the team had not done in five years.
Haley and Bicknell would like to change that. And they will start with injecting more youth, more athleticism and less girth in the offensive line.
When Haley was the head coach in Kansas City, the Chiefs had the league's No. 1 rushing attack with an offensive line that averaged less than 300 pounds. And, in an interview last week on the Steelers website, Bicknell said he doesn't like offensive linemen "who get huge and then they can't bend and move." He said he wants players who can move, run and have the quickness off the ball "to get into people."
That's one of the reasons the Steelers are expected to part ways with Max Starks, who was arguably the team's best lineman in 2012 and the only one to play every snap. Tackles are responsible for allowing running backs to get to the edge and bounce outside, and how many times did you see a Steelers running back do that last season?
That is also not a good fit for guard Willie Colon, who was too thick to move at the team's top pulling spot. Colon, though, is not expected back because of his repeated injury problems.
Their expected departure will pave the way for the Steelers to start an offensive line that could have four, and possibly five, starters under the age of 26.
Marcus Gilbert, who missed 12 games last season with an ankle ligament tear, will likely replace Starks at left tackle. He will be 25 on Friday. Mike Adams, last year's No. 2 pick who missed the final five games with an ankle injury, is expected to start at right tackle. The Steelers do not want to use him at left tackle because Adams has had problems in pass protection -- something the Steelers cannot afford on Roethlisberger's blind side. Adams, though, is a very good run blocker and was the starter at right tackle when the Steelers had three consecutive 100-yard rushers. He is 22.
The team is set with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, 23, and right guard David DeCastro, 23, who missed most of the 2012 season with a knee injury. Pouncey (6-4, 304) and DeCastro (6-5, 316) epitomize the long, lean body type the Steelers seek to employ on the offensive line.
The only question is at left guard, where 330-pound Ramon Foster finished the season as the starter.
Foster, though, does not run very well and is not an ideal fit for the team's primary pulling position. Plus, like Starks, he is an unrestricted free agent and might not be re-signed. That could pave the way for tackle Kelvin Beachum, last year's seventh-round pick, to be moved there.
In a season of injuries to many of their draft choices, Beachum was one of the team's most pleasant surprises. Not only did he impress the coaches with his ability to pass protect, he also showed an ability to get out of the edge and run block -- something the coaches want to see more of in 2013.
Beachum, 23, fits in perfectly with the team's desire to have lighter, more agile offensive lineman, and he could be moved to guard and given a chance to play there.
Doug Legurksy, who has started 17 games in his four-year career, would be re-signed to be the backup at center and guard. Legursky is also an unrestricted free agent.
But it might not just be a change in personnel that will affect the look of the offensive line.
The Steelers have been a man-blocking team almost exclusively since Chuck Noll ran the tackle-trap play in the 1970s. But Noll did that with smaller, quicker linemen who could move off the ball and use their quickness to execute blocks.
Today, most of the top running teams in the NFL use a zone-blocking scheme that requires the offensive lineman to block an area, not a specific man. Among them are Kansas City, Washington, Denver and Houston.
Bicknell used a zone-blocking scheme last season with the Chiefs, who finished fifth in the league in rushing after leading the NFL in 2011. Bicknell said the Chiefs used a zone-blocking scheme because they had a running back, Jamaal Charles, who liked to run outside-zone plays.
If the Steelers change to a zone-blocking scheme, then it will be imperative to find the type of running back who is patient, stretches the play and has good cutback instincts.
Right now, the Steelers' top running backs, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, are physical backs who run inside and are more tailored to gap runs in a man-blocking scheme. Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey are examples of running backs who can threaten the edge and are more suited to zone-blocking schemes. But Rainey is already gone and Mendenhall is expected to follow.
That will either force the Steelers to find a back to fit a zone-scheme style or continue with a man-blocking attack that suits Redman and Dwyer.
It will all be part of the change that is due to come on the offensive line.
First Published February 10, 2013 12:00 am