Thursday, October 18, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Willie Parker ... Ben Roethlisberger ... Troy Polamalu ... Casey Hampton ...
Who is the most indispensable Steelers player?
A case can be made for all four, but so, too, can one be made for Marvel Smith, their left offensive tackle.
"I don't know where he ranks among left tackles, but I wouldn't trade him for anybody at this point," said line coach Larry Zierlein.
Smith quietly goes about his job without making much noise or news. He earned a Pro Bowl spot once for the 2004 season and has been an uninvited alternate to Hawaii ever since. He also is playing much better than he did in 2004 and should rank among the best left tackles in the game.
The most important job on the offensive line for a right-handed quarterback belongs to his left tackle. Defenses normally put their best pass rusher to their right, across from the offensive left tackle.
When expansion teams are built, one of the first positions they invest in is their left tackle. The Steelers have not had to worry about their left tackle for the past four seasons after he started his first three years at right tackle and missed much of 2003 with a pinched nerve.
"I have a lot of confidence and a lot of faith in my blind side," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "A lot of guys in this league have to look over their shoulder quite a bit. I don't. I don't feel I have to. I have a lot of faith in him. He's a great tackle."
Smith has not allowed a sack this season, even though he has faced some of the better pass rushers in the NFL -- Julian Peterson led Seattle with 10 sacks last season and is tied for second in the NFL this year with six; Aaron Schobel led Buffalo last season with 14, three off the NFL lead, and Kamerion Wimbley led Cleveland last season with 11.
Denver will throw a variety at him -- ends Elvis Dumervil (their leader with four sacks) and John Engelberger, and rookie backups Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder.
"He's really, really been effective, and pressure from his side hasn't been a factor," Zierlein said. "I'm trying to think if he's even had a mental error. I'm sure he's had some pressures, but I can't remember them right now, none stands out."
Those who challenge his importance also might remember 2003. He was hampered most of the season by a pinched nerve in his neck and played only six games. All-Pro guard Alan Faneca moved to his spot and, while he played well enough, the line never recovered and the Steelers stumbled to 6-10, their only losing season of the decade.
Faneca and Zierlein each cite Smith's work after practice as an important reason for his improvement since the Steelers drafted him in the second round from Arizona State in 2000. Smith works on his pass sets by himself long after practice ends. Zierlein estimated he takes 100 practice pass sets.
"I'll tell you what makes him good, he's always out working on techniques, he stays late and works and works," Zierlein said. "He's perfected his pass sets, and his hand usage has gotten just really, really good."
Smith knows how to take a pass rusher deep or stop and prevent him from rushing inside him.
"He's a big technician in his craft," Faneca said.
The Steelers have the No. 2 running team in the NFL, and Smith handles that part of his job just as well.
"He's a good run-blocker, he's a strong guy," Zierlein said. "On those double-teams, he and Faneca get movement. They're a good tandem on that stuff. He's a good perimeter blocker when you pull on those toss plays. He's a good all-around player."
Smith said the best pass rushers are those who have all the moves, and picked Miami's Jason Taylor, a Woodland Hills High School graduate, among the best he has faced.
"I mean, if you have finesse moves, quickness and power moves, you have the total package. That's the toughest guy," Smith said.
He did not lump anyone he has faced this season into that category.
"I'll just say it like this: After five games, there's nobody who jumps out in my mind as somebody who's the best I've played against," Smith said.
Those opponents cannot say the same.