After a somewhat tumultuous (by player losses and salary cap fixing, not Aaron Hernandez tumultuous) offseason, the Steelers received a bit of good news over the weekend regarding the status of Ben Roethlisberger’s once-injured knee. Roethlisberger reportedly said that his knee is “better than ever,” and it is assumed that he will return to the team once Training Camp begins at the end of this month.
I certainly hope that “Big Ben’s” knee will provide him with some extra mobility during the 2013 campaign, especially due to the fact that his offensive line has more questions than answers surrounding it as a unit.
Although the Steelers do have some big concerns in the offensive trenches, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the fact that the franchise does possess one of the best centers in the league.
Maurkice Pouncey has started all 45 games during his professional career with the Steelers. Best of all, Pouncey has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons with the team. Pouncey has a great mix of size, speed, and agility for a center, and his athleticism and down-field blocking prowess will only be utilized more now that the Steelers will employ more of a zone-based running game.
The Steelers were also very lucky when they locked up the ever-reliable Ramon Foster this offseason for a relatively cheap contract this past offseason as well. Since Foster made the team as a UDFA back in 2009, he has quietly emerged as one of the team’s most reliable options in the trenches. Foster has started 42 games since his rookie year, and has chipped in at both guard and tackle.
Last season Ramon really came into his own after he stepped in for an injured David DeCastro and started at right guard for the injured rookie. In addition to his work on the right side in 2012, Foster started the final three at left guard once DeCastro returned to the lineup in Week 14. As steady as Foster and the All-Pro Pouncey are though, the Steelers still have enormous question marks looming at their other three starting positions.
I will admit that I am less worried about DeCastro than I am about Pittsburgh’s projected starters at left and right tackle. The former Stanford Cardinal guard definitely had his ups and his downs during his shortened rookie campaign, and Bucky Brooks of NFL.com is of the impression that Pittsburgh’s 1st round pick in 2012 will improve greatly this year. Nevertheless, the talented guard will only have three regular season games under his belt by the time he heads to his his second training camp. Moreover, DeCastro must prove that he can anchor the right side of Pittsburgh’s offensive line and be an absolute mauler on the strong-side.
The biggest question facing the Steelers’ offensive line is: “Who will man the left and right tackle spots?”
Pittsburgh’s coaching staff obviously feel that Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams were capable of manning Ben’s blind-side this past offseason, especially since they allowed Max Starks to walk to San Diego as a free agent. I believe that the loss of Starks could be huge, particularly because neither Gilbert nor Adams has started a regular season game at the left tackle position at the N.F.L.-level.
Gilbert is the more athletic of the two and is the better pass-protector in my opinion so it was no shock that he received most of the reps on the left side. Unfortunately, Gilbert was much more inconsistent during his second year in 2012 and he was limited to only five games due to an ankle injury. To his credit, Adams started six games and stepped up to play well on the right side during his rookie campaign. However, Adams’ season was also cut short due to an injury and both projected starters only have a combined 24 starts between them.
Kelvin Beachum is a solid role player and a terrific “swing-tackle” to have on game-days behind Adams and Gilbert. Beachum however reportedly took a number of second-team reps at the center position during the spring, and the Steelers’ coaching staff appear to be making him a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” type of lineman. If anything happens to Pittsburgh’s top six in their offensive line rotation though, then the situation could become dire for Big Ben’s health and the Steelers’ fortunes.
The recently signed Guy Whimper, whose performance in Jacksonville made Jonathan Scott’s stint in Pittsburgh look Hall of Fame-worthy, is the only backup with any extended professional experience besides Beachum and the seldom-used Jon Malecki. Behind Whimper are developmental prospects like Joe Long, Justin Cheadle, Nik Embernate, and Mike Golic, Jr., none of whom I should mention have logged any snaps in a professional game.
There is talent along Pittsburgh’s offensive line, make no mistake. In fact, the team’s starting five could develop into one of the best young units in the league. I just hope that Ben’s knee is as “good as new,” because he might have to be moving around quite a bit if his guys in the trenches struggle mightily once again this year.
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