Jim Wexell believes the Steelers' offensive line is more responsible for the team's success than many want to admit.
Bill Cowher’s first draft pick as coach of the Steelers in 1992 was a right tackle, and Leon Searcy certainly was a road grader, the kind of player upon whom Cowher leaned in fourth quarters with an 11-point lead, when the coach would “pound the rock.”
Cowher was a fundamentalist, a guy who used premium picks (rounds 1-3) for eight offensive linemen in eight drafts from 1995-2002.
Even in 2001, the only year in which Cowher didn’t use a premium pick on an offensive lineman during that stretch, he passed on quarterback Drew Brees to draft nose tackle Casey Hampton.
That “fundamentalist” approach on draft day has changed, and it appears to have changed for the better.
Let’s use late April, 2004 as the beginning of this philosophical shift. During the draft process that year, Russ Grimm fell in love with massive guard-tackle Shawn Andrews, and Cowher came to agree with his line coach. Word leaked late in the week that Andrews was the Steelers’ draft target with the 11th pick, but on draft day team president Dan Rooney walked into the war room to speak to Cowher and Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert.
Rooney told them that he wasn’t going to meddle and tell them whom to draft. He just told them that he’d once passed on a franchise quarterback (Dan Marino) and it was one of the most difficult football decisions with which he ever had to live. Whether Rooney had a direct impact or not, the Steelers that day drafted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first round. In the third round they drafted another massive tackle, Max Starks.
The next draft – with panic bubbling among the media because the slow-footed Starks hadn’t played much and the Steelers had little depth behind a line consisting of three 1st-round picks and two 2nd-round picks – the Steelers passed on, well, my “expert” call for tackle Khalif Barnes or guard-tackle Marcus Johnson, and they selected tight end Heath Miller. The Steelers also chose guard-tackle Trai Essex in the third round and guard Chris Kemoeatu in the sixth.
In the 2006 draft, fans and media believed the obvious choice was center Nick Mangold. Hobbled starter Jeff Hartings was entering his final season and it was unthinkable that the Steelers would allow their 40-year stretch of outstanding center play to come to an end. But when the Steelers traded up in the first round, they did not draft Mangold, but wide receiver Santonio Holmes. They drafted tackle Willie Colon in the fourth round.
In 2007, the media could see what the Steelers could not: The offensive line was falling apart, rotting from the interior out. Free agent acquisition Sean Mahan was signed as a band-aid for the legacy at center, left guard Alan Faneca told the team he was leaving the following free-agent season, and right guard Kendall Simmons was just not cutting it. The Steelers had to trade down in the first or trade up in the second to draft one of the massive guards – Ben Grubbs, Justin Blalock, or Arron Sears – and maybe even use him as a true anchor at center against the massive AFC nose guards that had been giving the Steelers so many problems.
Instead, the Steelers drafted linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the first two rounds in 2007. They also signed center-guard Darnell Stapleton as a rookie free agent after the draft.
In 2008, tackle Marvel Smith was coming off another season of back problems, and he would soon be looking at free agency. So would Starks. The Steelers needed to draft a tackle out of a strong crop, but every other team seemed to have the same idea. Seven tackles were drafted before the Steelers’ pick at No. 23. They could’ve reached for tackle Duane Brown, or they could replace Mahan at center with Mike Pollak. Guard was still a need, so even big Chilo Rachal of Southern Cal would work. But the Steelers instead drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. Later they addressed tackle with Tony Hills in the fourth round, and signed rookie free agent center-guard Doug Legursky after the draft. They also hoped that veteran free agent Justin Hartwig could replace Mahan at center.
Of course, the Steelers won the Super Bowl after that 2008 season, but Starks, Kemoeatu, Hartwig, Stapleton and Colon had only gone along for the ride. The Steelers won in spite of their line, went the popular opinion. The only person who seemed to respect their work as a patchwork unit thrust together for the first time was Roethlisberger, who gave them a shout-out as soon as he took the podium to accept the Lombardi Trophy.
That lack of respect from the media continued into this past draft. Center-guard Max Unger was available. So was tackle Eben Britton. But the Steelers instead drafted pass-rushing defensive tackle Ziggy Hood in the first round. They also took guard Kraig Urbik in the third, center A.Q. Shipley and hard-blocking tight end David Johnson in the seventh, and signed Ramon Foster as a rookie free agent after the draft.
So, from an offensive line consisting entirely of premium draft picks, the Steelers have transitioned to a line consisting of third-rounders Starks and Essex, fourth-rounder Colon, sixth-rounder Kemoeatu, and street free agent Hartwig. Behind them on game days are Legursky and Foster, and behind them are game-day inactives Urbik and Hills. Shipley is on the practice squad and Stapleton is on injured reserve.
It’s a group that’s not only playing well, as the 6-2 Steelers prepare for the first-place showdown Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but it’s a group that won’t need much, if any, attention in the next draft.
Still, the group has its die-hard critics. One of those critics wrote the following on our message board over at SteelCityInsider.com: “If we repeat, it certainly won’t be due to the O-line.”
Oh, but it will be due to the O-line. While it’s unlikely that any of these guys will make the Pro Bowl, it’s their work as a unit, as a cheap unit, as a unit that allowed the drafting of Roethlisberger, Miller, Holmes, Timmons, Woodley, Mendenhall and Hood, that’s making it all possible.
By Jim Wexell
Posted Nov 12, 2009