3 spots will be open when camp begins
Saturday, June 02, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Football can be a kid's game for the Steelers, especially in the offensive line where it has looked like musical chairs all spring.
One minute, new center Sean Mahan plays guard and old guard Kendall Simmons will be at center. Max Starks, the starting right tackle the past two seasons, has taken snaps at left tackle, where Marvel Smith has made a Pro Bowl.
Since left guard Alan Faneca has been absent all but three days this spring, Chris Kemoeatu has taken his place, but he really is competing to take Simmons' job at right guard. Willie Colon has run with the first team at right tackle this week, although it is still Starks' job to lose.
Then there's Chukky Okobi. He has run with the first team all week at center in, perhaps, an all-or-nothing deal for him. It's possible either Okobi wins the starting center's job left vacant by the retirement of Jeff Hartings or be jettisoned to save his $2 million salary.
There's more changes than having a new coach for the offensive line this fall.
"A lot of things could happen," said Larry Zierlein, who took over for the departed Russ Grimm as line coach. "Nobody's going to lose their job in [the spring].
"Whoever the starters are, they are, no matter where we're lining them up now. You're either going to gain or lose your job in the preseason. Where we're lining them up right now, really doesn't mean a whole lot."
Zierlein announced two changes that will not happen; Smith will remain at left tackle and Alan Faneca at left guard. The other three spots are open.
"There's a lot of jobs up for grabs in that line," coordinator Bruce Arians said.
The key to it all is the center, as it always has been on this team. The Steelers have had, essentially, three starting centers since 1977, starting with Mike Webster, who became a full-time starter at the position that season. He made his first Pro Bowl after the 1978 season and went on to nine Pro Bowls. Dermontti Dawson succeeded him in 1989 and went to seven Pro Bowls. Hartings succeeded Dawson in 2001 and went to two.
That's 18 Steelers centers in the past 30 Pro Bowls. That's a habit the Steelers would like not to break.
"I think it will be a great challenge to whoever wins that job to uphold the traditions that have been set at that position," said Arians. "I won't say they can, I won't say they can't."
Okobi, a Pittsburgh native, has spent his past six seasons as the heir apparent at center. But the Steelers made their only high-end outside signing in free agency a center, luring Mahan from Tampa Bay, where new coach Mike Tomlin once coached the secondary. Mahan also has started at guard, but he said he was brought here essentially to play center.
Mahan and Okobi have split time at the position this spring, but, if Okobi does not win the job in training camp, he could be released, and the Steelers seem to be preparing for that outcome. They are teaching guard Kendall Simmons the position and last year carried rookie Marvin Philip as their third center. Also, Okobi's strongest supporter, Grimm, is coaching the offensive line in Arizona.
Paying $2 million for a backup lineman is not something the Steelers usually do. But the Steelers also could lose three of their five current starters in the line who are in the last year of their contracts -- Faneca, Simmons and Starks.
The Steelers have not talked to agent Joe Linta about Okobi possibly taking another pay cut, as he did last year, and Linta said they would not do it anyway.
"I don't try to anticipate anything, honestly," Okobi said. "It's competition, so let's compete. If all things are fair, then I like my chances. If there are other circumstances, then I don't know. I can control what I can control, and let's go form there."
Arians wants better pass protection from his line, in concert with blockers at the other positions and wide receivers running better "hot" routes on blitzes.
"No, we were not as good a group as the year before," he said.