“We need to get younger and stronger on both the offensive and defensive lines.” – Mike Tomlin, January 2008
Mike Tomlin issued that semi-solemn declaration at the end of 2008, and everyone agreed.
Opposing defenders had pummeled Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers had been forced to rely on gadget plays in a critical goal-line situations, and the defense became a shell of its former self after Aaron Smith was lost for the year.
Going into the 2008 draft, everyone knew the Steelers would target lineman of both stripes. Yeah, the Steelers insisted they would “take the best player available,” but Steel Curtain Rising implored readers to ignore this. The Steelers would certainly do what was necessary to bolster the lines.
We were wrong.
Premium lineman came of the board at a furious pace in both the first and second rounds of the 2008 draft, and the Steelers took advantage of that to pick Rashaard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed.
They didn’t pick a linemen until the nabbed Tony Hills in the fourth round, and Pittsburgh went the entire draft without selecting a defensive lineman.
After going through a draft where they seemingly ignored their most urgent needs, the Steelers then promptly went out and won Super Bowl XLIII.
That was then, this is now.
Having Lombardi Trophy number six in hand has not changed the simple fact that the Steelers most urgent needs remain offensive and defensive line. (Wide receiver and defensive back are also needs which Steel Curtain Rising will discuss later this week.)
The question remains, which line takes higher priority?
Thus far, Steel Curtain Rising's readers favor the offensive line by almost a 60-40 margin. There are arguments for and against on both sides, which we explore now, starting with the offensive line.
The Case for Favoring the Offensive Line in the Draft
Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapelton, Willie Colon. Has a more maligned front five ever led its team to a Super Bowl?
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times, and knocked/taken out of three games. Ben is gifted with ability to make things happen with his feet. But his gift does not alter stark reality too often he’s had no choice but to run for his life.
Going into 2008, one of the line’s supposed saving graces was that for all of the punishment that Roethlisberger took in 2007, the Steelers had a dominate rushing game, and Willie Parker led the NFL in rushing until he got injured in week 16.
The same cannot be said of 2008. Either by injury, line play, or perhaps Arian’s play calling, the rest of the NFL lost its fear of the Steelers once vaunted running game in 2008.
How many times did Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, or Gary Russell fail to punch it on the goal line?
The Steelers entered free agency with five lineman becoming free agents. Fortunately, that number will go down next year. They’ll only face the prospect of losing both tackles and their center.
Given all of that, the urgency of focusing on the offensive line above all else should be obvious.... Or is it...?
The Case Against Favoring the Offensive Line in the Draft
Standing on the dais in Tampa with Lombardi Number Six in his hands, Ben Roethlisberger perhaps said it best:
“Offensive Line, who's laughing now?”
The truth is that the Steelers offensive line still might not scare anybody, but there’s no doubt that they got better as they year wore on.
As number of commentators have pointed out, the Steelers started 2008 with a rebuilt offensive line (new center, new starting guard), and then were forced to rebuild it after decimating injuries in the Baltimore and Jacksonville games.
Max Starks has shown he can play. On lookers will never confuse Chris Kemoeatu with Alan Fanaca but the Steelers could do worse. Justin Hartwig was a clear upgrade over Sean Mahan at center. Darnell Stapelton didn’t play poorly for someone who entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent. Willie Colon still hasn’t stopped people from insisting that his natural position is guard, after two years as a starter, Steeler coaches prefer to demure.
The Steelers will also bring back Trai Essex, who can play both guard and tackle. They also have last year’s 4th round pick Tony Hills. Considering that Hills did not get into a game in 2008 it would be folly to expect too much of him, but it’s also foolish to count him out.
Remember this: In 1999 there was another fourth round pick who only saw action in 6 games as a rookie, and had little expected of him heading into his sophomore season. That player blossomed into a starter and a Pro Bowler.
His name is Aaron Smith. Steel Curtain Rising is not predicting that the same will happen with Tony Hills, but stranger things have come to pass.
The Bottom Line on the Offensive Line
Up until the final years of the Bill Cowher regime the Steelers seemed to have an unofficial policy to use a premium pick on an offensive lineman.
The last time they picked an offensive lineman in the top three rounds it was Trai Essex in 2005. They must discard this patchwork offensive line building strategy, and they must do so starting with this draft.
But the Steelers do have some depth and some youth going for them on the offensive line. Steel Curtain Rising will take a look at the Steelers defensive line draft needs soon, but for the moment we’ll offer that the same cannot be said for the defensive line.
Comparing what we have on both lines, the offensive line has the greatest potential to grow, and this group of players has already shown they'll do the work needed to make that happen.
If the Steelers get a shot at a blue chip offensive lineman with one of their premium picks, they should take him. But of the two lines, the offensive line is the less pressing need, if only slightly so.
Thanks for visiting. All week long Steel Curtain Rising will be profiling the Steelers 2009 draft needs.