You can ask anyone. Go ahead, ask them. “What was the Steelers’ weakest area last season?” Or how about, “When push comes to shove, who was more likely to be on the ground?”
You got it – the Pittsburgh offensive line. Opposing defenses would run around them, through them, between them and over them. If things got much worse, third-and-one would have become a punting situation. Fourth-and-goal-to-go? Tomlin never did give up on that, no matter how many three pointers it cost them.
So there it is, can the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line change in one offseason from a weakness to a strength? I say, “Why not?” Now hear me out on this because it might be a stretch.
But just suppose …
Max Starks will begin the season as the starter at left tackle. He was rewarded with a new contract and I think he’ll be better, more motivated. He seems like the type who’ll want to prove he deserves that money and who’ll appreciate the new confidence (no, not desparation but Confidence!) the Steelers exhibited via the extension. No longer a backup or a right tackle, he’ll have from last season until the next to improve his game on the left side.
And speaking of the left side, let’s move a bit to the right and talk about Chris Kemoeatu. It’s never easy to replace a perennial pro bowl player, just ask Kemo. People were underwhelmed by his performance, calling him sloth-footed, indecisive and any manner of other things behind his back. Consider though, that Kemo was a first-year starter who may show some modicum of improvement with a season under his belt. That experience coupled with the certainty that the same two men will be blocking to either side; yes, I’m talking about continuity here; that fact alone should lend itself to visible improvement from the left guard.
The man-in-the-middle, Justin Hartwig, was servicable last season. Let us assume that he will at least remain so. And let’s go ahead and give the benefit of the doubt, the he, too, will improve with the ’08 season in the books. Now he’s more familiar with Bruce Arians’ arcane and (some say) unknowable schemes. Next season he’ll spend less time thinking and more time reacting, doing, blocking – not getting pushed back into Big Ben’s lap (one hopes).
Our left-most right-side man is the guard, Darnell Stapleton or rookie Kraig Urbik. Who will it be? The competition alone seemingly guarantees an upgrade here. Last season Stapleton was competing against himself, essenitally. After Simmons went on IR, who else was next? Sure, some say Colon should have been there at his natural position, but the coaches like him at tackle; what can you do? So now Stapleton will have to win the job over Urbik during camp. If he does, great. Either way, I feel this position will start ’09 in a better place than any point in ’08.
So far we’re four-for-four. Imagine that, at this point we have 100% improvement from left to right, back and forth, top to bottom, etc. But why stop here? We can’t. I’ve heard people call Willie Colon the “human mudslide” and frankly, it always gets a chuckle.
So, what if Colon does nothing more than stay the same? We’ve already seen improvement on a scale that few would admit possible so why get greedy? We’ll say that Colon does a “workman-like” job and add ‘er all up, the whole she-bang.
We have a line that played together for the majority of the season in ’08 and won a Superbowl. They could run block in spurts and protect Ben for 2, 3 and sometimes even 4 seconds. But in ’09 the guys will know one another, they’ll be a year better and a year smarter in the scheme.
I’ll make a bold prediction now and set the over/under for sacks at 40 and figure the top two backs for a healthy 4.3 ypc. Furthermore, Tomlin will be rewarded more often than not when he keeps Jeff Reed on the sideline for those fourth-and-goal-to-go’s while third-and-one will no longer be considered a punting down. You know where I’m going.
Yes! A weakness can become a strength.