Perhaps no unit on the Pittsburgh Steelers has come under more fire than the offensive line in recent years. Despite team success that has included two Super Bowl appearances and a victory, the O-line has for the most part, under-performed over the last five years.
This past season was no exception as Ben Roethlisberger was again among the leaders in sacked quarterbacks and his health or lack thereof was a direct result of the continued problems along the front.
To be fair, Big Ben is not always the easiest guy to block for and protect because of his mobility. He’d be the first to tell you that he needs to get the ball out sooner at times and that throwing the ball away is not always a bad option. Personally I like that Roethlisberger tries to extend plays and I’m willing to take the risks that go along with that, but there is no question that the offensive line must do better when he is in the pocket.
So where do the Steelers turn in rebuilding this current line? Offensive Line Coach Sean Kugler has done a pretty darn good job with the cards he has been dealt but I think in some ways this past year was a step back and I say that with full knowledge of the injuries that plagued this group.
The front office has a couple of very important decisions to make regarding personnel up front and here’s my take on a couple of potential moves;
Chris Kemoeatu- The vast majority of fans want nothing more than to see Kemo and his $4 million salary go ‘bye-bye’ this offseason. Besides his penchant for holding penalties he has been unable to stay healthy enough to be a significant contributor to the line. You can’t deny the guy is an aggressive run-blocker who plays to and beyond the whistle. His pass blocking however leaves a lot to be desired as he looks more like an airport turnstile than a blocker.
My guess is that since Kemoeatu has not yet been cut, he will be offered an opportunity to stay at a significantly reduced salary. Certainly the draft and free agency could change things but with the Steelers still over the salary cap it is surprising they haven’t moved on from Kemo. It’s for this reason I believe he’ll be back as a reserve only.
Max Starks- There is no question that the arrival of Max Starks was one of the most important factors in helping this team achieve a 12-4 regular season. While Starks couldn’t block the entire defense himself, he brought leadership and stability to a line badly in need of both. Starks’ situation is unfortunate but not surprising. He came in to camp last summer way overweight and out of shape and was sent packing soon thereafter. Starks’ routine Twitter updates not only kept him in the fans’ mind but the team’s as well. His tweets kept us all updated on his progress as he worked to drop off the weight.
Starks would require a salary too rich for the blood of the Steelers and he is also coming off of ACL surgery so his availability would be limited to start the season. The Steelers seem committed to Willie Colon coming back healthy following two season-ending injuries and also appear to be moving Marcus Gilbert to the other side of the line. While this move isn’t in stone yet, it seems likely.
Max is a favorite of Steelers’ fans but the factors are just too great against him returning. Stranger things have happened of course.
There’s obviously a lot that can happen between now and the NFL Draft but I feel confident these are two moves that seem to be slam dunks for the Steelers. Unfortunately the NFL is a business and sometimes money plays a significant factor in who you keep and you don’t as the Steelers know all too well this offseason.