Monday, September 9, 2013

Steelers Sign Center, Bring Back Dwyer - Is It Enough?

The news came through early Monday morning from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette. His simple tweet read, "#Steelers will re-sign RB Jonathan Dwyer." A move expected by many. A move that was to be followed by two more later on in the day. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers also brought in veteran kicker Shayne Graham to kick in place of Shaun Suisham who suffered a hamstring injury before the game and possibly hurt his toe with a misstep (resultant of the hamstring?) on the opening kickoff Sunday. Sushi is out 2-3 weeks. 

The move, though, that is of greatest interest deal with their offensive line. Veteran center/guard Fernando Velasco was signed to replace center Maurkice Pouncey who was placed on IR along with linebacker Larry Foote and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling. 

Velasco agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Steelers. He started 16 games last season for the Tennessee Titans, and graded out as the 11th ranked center last year by Pro Football Focus. A solid player who is likely going to step right in and be the Steelers starting center if he can make the calls. Definitely a solid move for the Steelers. 

Steel City Insider's Jim Wexell tweeted that he "watched new Steelers OL Fernando Velasco this preseason and (was) surprised he was available. Strong, some mobility. Quality pick-up."

Good. Because this team needs help on the offensive line, especially in pass blocking. The prime years of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could be wasted if matters aren't rectified quickly. The signing of Velasco aids that.

As for the OLine woes in general, this is a problem that has been going in for years now. Yes, this is a young line that is still gelling as a unit, but their learning curve must be shortened greatly if the season, and Big Ben's career, can be salvaged. 

Big Ben actually looked good at timed, despite five sacks. Like Bouchette said in a column on Monday, though, it isn't a trend the team needs to see develop.

"That absolutely cannot continue. If they have to chuck the whole zone blocking scheme and re-sign Max Starks, something’s got to be done before this thing really goes into the dumpster." - http://tinyurl.com/no24t9t

The Steelers offensive line woes in the last few years have become almost as legendary as the offensive line dominance that the team had since Ray Mansfield anchored the "big uglies." 

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, Merril Hoge and something called a Rich Erenberg, there was room to run. And run they did- the Steelers still lead the NFL in rushing yards gained since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.

Those Steelers lines also provided time for the quarterbacks to throw the ball. They threw it proficiently, even dynamically. 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 did go to three Super Bowls in six years, winning 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.

To repeat Bouchette, "that absolutely cannot continue."

The only lanes the running backs see opened up to them on a regular basis are those they see when the team plane touches down in opposing team's cities. For Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall to be 1,000-yard rushers behind those OLines was nothing short of amazing.

The Steelers mentality under GM Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin has seemingly been to simply develop lower-round offensive linemen, yet not to go after bigger names in the NFL Draft. Granted, that changed recently with the drafting of four OLinemen in the first or second rounds in the last three NFL Drafts. But, is it too little, too late for Big Ben? If so, might that signify being the same for those in charge of the draft also?

At a post-draft press conference in 2008, a question was posed to Colbert and Tomlin 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, that seemed fair enough at the time - a team does need to be versatile and even explosive. But, what have those weapons reaped recently? 

As Terry Silver told Danny LaRusso in The Karate Kid III, "A man can't stand, he can't fight." Well, if Ben can't stay upright, he can't fight to get his receivers the ball. It isn't just Big Ben, either. 

There are few holes through which the running backs can even run. And when there are no holes, when the pocket breaks down before it even forms, when there is immediate penetration from the defense, the weapons simply don't matter. 

The aforementioned Steelers running back and current ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, when speaking of the 2011 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." 

Few running backs can thrive in that environment. It has also affected Big Ben. Look at Tom Brady Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. He had clean pockets all day. They scored 24 points. Aaron Rodgers? Under some duress, but it was manageable. They lost, but scored 28 points. Peyton Manning? Yeah... 

At the risk of going to the well once too often, "that absolutely cannot continue."