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How good is the Steelers' offensive line? Left tackle Marvel Smith gives a matter-of-fact answer.

"I don't see why we can't be the best line in the league."

Maybe it already is. It was good enough to win a Super Bowl and has returned intact for a second consecutive year.

"That's big," said right guard Kendall Simmons. "We've all been together, played all last season together. We should be able to grow from there."


From left to right, the names are Smith (seventh NFL season), guard Alan Faneca (ninth), center Jeff Hartings (11th), Simmons (fifth) and tackle Max Starks (third) -- and their good health would go a long way toward another banner year.

There is no better way to gauge a Bill Cowher-coached team than by the health of its offensive line. Since 1994, Cowher has posted a winning record every year in which at least four of his offensive linemen have started more than half the games. Any other scenario resulted in losing records in 1998, '99 and '03.

"The one year we struggled the most since I've been here was when we didn't have continuity in 2003," said Hartings, who joined the team in 2001. "We had guys playing different positions, and I don't care how good you are, when you move to a different position, it's a difficult transition. Obviously, keeping us healthy is very important, but, unfortunately, not totally in our control."

Nobody knows that better than Simmons, a first-round pick from 2002 who has battled injuries and illness throughout his four-year career. A diabetic condition hindered Simmons in 2003, and he missed the entire 2004 season because of an injured knee. He had an up-and-down 2005 but is bolstered by the fact that his offseason was surgery-free.

"You know what? I'm feeling pretty good," Simmons said. "It was the first offseason where I didn't have something cut on or fixed. I was just healing from the season and could slowly work my way back into it."

Simmons dropped 10 pounds during the offseason, weight he figures he'll regain easily. He'll play at around 315 pounds. His energy and quickness were evident in the run test the first day of camp, when he was still going strong on the 14th and final 40-yard sprint.

"I think he's going to surprise a lot of people," Smith said. "I've never seen him feeling this good mentally and physically. Everything's behind him. He's a veteran, knows what it takes. Dealing with everything he's dealt with, he knows what to expect."

Midway through the last season, Steelers coaches began giving rookie Chris Kemoeatu practice reps at right guard -- a clear sign they wanted more from Simmons, who delivered.

"You always want to keep that competitive factor," said offensive line coach Russ Grimm. "Hopefully, you have a good enough football team where you have some guys behind the starters pushing for a job."

The Steelers have that. In addition to Kemoeatu, the team has a promising rookie tackle in Willie Colon, a second-year tackle with some big-game experience in Trai Essex, a 12th-year tackle/guard in Barrett Brooks and three centers on the roster in Hartings, Chukky Okobi and impressive rookie Marvin Philip.

Not many NFL teams have as much depth along the offensive line. Not many have as much talent on the starting unit, either. That's why quarterback Ben Roethlisberger feels comfortable wearing his old helmet, instead of a bulkier, more-protective one, despite the head injuries he sustained in a June motorcycle accident.

"The best protection isn't the newest technology in helmets or shoulder pads," Roethlisberger said. "It's my offensive line. Those guys are the best in the business. I'm a lucky guy."

Rock solid

Here's a look at the Steelers' offensive line:

Player Pos. Season Comment
Marvel Smith LT 7th Value showed in absence
Alan Faneca LG 9th Five straight Pro Bowls
Jeff Hartings C 11th Still going strong at 33
Kendall Simmons RG 5th Finally, a smooth offseason
Max Starks RT 3rd Came on late in year