Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Offensive Line Woes May be the Fault of Colbert and Tomlin

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The setting was a post-draft press conference in 2008, similar to the one shown in the picture above. The question that was posed to Colbert and Tomlin was regarding the Steelers issues on the offensive line. Tomlin provided a seemingly acceptable answer by saying that 'one way to aid the passing game and the getting of the ball out of the quarterback's hand quicker is to provide him multiple targets', or words to that effect. Ok, fair enough. A team does need to be versatile and even explosive. But is that all he and Colbert are looking to do? To their credit, they did draft Pouncey in the first round last year, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

The Steelers offensive line woes in the last few years have become almost as legendary as the offensive line dominance that the team had for...well, a little bit longer. For decades the Steelers OLine punished defensive lines opening holes for the likes of Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis. Even during the years of lesser known running backs like Ernest Jackson, Walter Abercrombie, Frank Pollard, Rich Erenberg and Merril Hoge, there was room to run and the Steelers were generally among the tops in the NFL in rushing.

Those Steelers lines also provided time for the quarterbacks to throw the ball. They threw it proficiently, even dynamically. Everyone knows about the most popular name in this group of quarterbacks, 4-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw, but even those who succeeded him rarely had to run for their lives. Simply put, the Steelers OLine was stout for the better part of 35 years.

Lately, though, the line is less Achilles and more achilles heel. Yes, the Steelers have been to three Super Bowls in six years and have won two of them. But it could be argued that the OLines that went to and won those Super Bowls were the worst to ever do so. It seems they have done just enough, along with having a tough-as-nails quarterback to absorb some of the blows, to consistently win.

The running backs during this most recent era have been nothing short of spectacular considering that the only lanes they have seen opened up to them on a regular basis have been those they see when the team plane touches down in opposing team's cities. To be able to do what Willie Parker, aka Fast Willie Parker, and Rashard Mendenhall respectively were able to do behind the OLines that the Steelers have had since approximately 2006 is nothing short of amazing. Willie Parker was an injury in the 2007 week 16 Rams game away from a potential rushing title. He had nearly 1,500 yards the year before. Rashard Mendenhall had over 1,100 yards in only 12 starts in 2009, and almost 1,275 yards and 13 touchdowns last year.

The Steelers mentality under Tomlin and Colbert has seemingly been to simply develop the offensive linemen and not to go after bigger names in the NFL Draft. Granted, being that the Steelers have been as successful as they have been, they have been at or near the bottom of the draft rounds, so they would have to trade up to get a high end lineman such as a tackle. And while they have traded up in the recent past, they've only done it for specialty/position players.

This year it seems the lack of quality players on the OLine, and the injuries accompanying them, is beginning to truly manifest itself. There are few holes through which Mendenhall can even run. The aforementioned Merril Hoge, now an ESPN analyst, when speaking of the Steelers-Colts Sunday Night Football game, said, "Penetration is the number one killer of a running game: it neutralizes the point of attack, it deters your instincts as a runner, it dictates where you're going to go and it destroys you as a runner." He also called Mendenhall "extremely powerful and gifted." But the OLine was simply overmatched. Too often that is the case. It has affected Roethlisberger too as he is very obviously playing timid. The Steelers are bottom dwellers in rushing in the NFL and are turning the ball over at an alarming rate. This could easily lead to another post-Super Bowl malaise. Or, worse yet considering the hits Roethlisberger has already taken, the loss of our quarterback for the season.

True to his word, Tomlin, along with Colbert, has gone out and gotten playmakers for his franchise quarterback. But, since that same quarterback often has very little time to let a play develop, the advantages provided by those playmakers are being negated. A problem that could have been affected for the positive over the years by paying more attention in the draft. But they seem to be content to with developing B-list linemen to fit their needs and schemes. In a similar vein, Cowher didn't believe in drafting a franchise quarterback for years but to rather develop QBs and build the defense and run game instead. It worked for him too...until the most important games, that is, when a franchise QB might have been the difference. Could the Steelers be looking at a similar situation here? I, for one, hope not. Let's hope Tomlin and Colbert see the trend and look to change it this next offseason, whether or not they're picking in the middle of the first round or at at the end of it.