Monday, January 14, 2008

Steelers Draft Season Asstacular: The Offensive Line Problem

Friends, Yinzers, Countrymen... I come not to praise the Steelers offensive line, but to bury it. Hear me out, as I propose... a modest... proposal, or whatever other reference to historical rhetoric will get me through this graf.

Here's the problem: The Steelers offensive line sucks. Like any colossal failure, it's the product of a number of issues, no one of which can adequately and exhaustively account for the levels of fail achieved by this year's line. I won't delve deeply into the origins of these problems, nor will I attempt to give some sort of historical account of their arrival in Pittsburgh, as I don't want you to die of natural causes while reading this. What I will do, however, is provide you with a brief summary of what we have learned about each of these players this year.

Marvel Smith - 2008 brought us a like-new Marvel, with just one hundred billiondy miles on him in less than eight short years with the club. A former 3rd round pick, Marvel is often mistakenly referred to as a "Pro Bowl left tackle," probably because "hot-and-cold career project lineman who has been in over his head since 2003 despite having gone to the Pro Bowl once as an alternate in 2005 because Jonathan Ogden was busy that weekend and Tarik Glenn is afraid to fly alone" is just a little too long. See how long that was? Imprudent. Let's ignore that Marvel here was always projected to right tackle coming out of college, and ignore the fact that he spent his first three years at right tackle for the Steelers. Let's even forget that in his first season at left tackle, he pinched a nerve in his back that landed him on IR and the line fell to pieces. Let's just focus on... oh wait, there's nothing left to know about Marvel Smith.

JUST JOSHIN', there is. Mostly that sometime in mid December, his back stopped working. This reportedly occurred in Foxboro, against the Patriots, which must have been when Belicheck ordered Patriots assistant tight ends coach and master of the Art of the Black Lotus Pete Mangurian to shiv him in the back with a Shuriken during a television time out. The next week against Jacksonville, Smith's footwork was reduced to planting on his left foot and lightly shoving Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Reggie Hayward in the direction of Roethlisberger, before doing his best to look flummoxed and shouting "DAMN!"

This is the second time in the four years since becoming a left tackle that Smith has landed on IR before the end of the season. Team doctors say that his surgery was successful and he'll be "fine" for 2008, which I take to mean that he may regain feeling in his lower extremities sometime in April and is on schedule to be in mid-season form and back on IR in time for camp.

Alan Faneca - You know what he's thinking here? Look at his face. That's a face that says "Is... is this dude for real?"

Or maybe it says "Did you just tell them I'm going to get my guy and Mahan's guy?"

Or he's thinking "So let me get this straight: Those guys are all getting contracts? Just so we're straight here. They're giving the money to those guys. For serious?"

Yes, Alan. For serious. But your hypothetical inner monologue does make a good point:

OK, Faneca isn't the greatest pass blocker in the world. But that's not what he was brought here to do. He was here to be the best pulling guard in the league, and one of the best run blockers, and he still does both of those things with aplomb. But let's visit a short list of things he was not brought here to do: block two defensive tackles at once, block a defensive end and a defensive tackle at once, block a linebacker and a defensive tackle at once, make eggs benedict for Max Starks on his birthday just how he likes, block nine hundred defensive linemen at one time because Sean Mahan would rather watch the play unfold.

And that's what Faneca spent most of this season doing. Covering up for his paraplegic left tackle and a center who, when the ball is snapped, has to tap into his hangey ball of courage to stop himself from yelling "holy mother of shit!" and running in the opposite direction.

Now, the buzz is that the Steelers front office will "make a run" at Faneca before the end of February, which means that after shitting on him for an entire year, they've panicked upon the realization that their offensive line is bad the way the sun is warm and are desperate to keep some semblance of success in the line. Faneca's still got it, but he doesn't have $49 million of "it," and considering that there's always a more desperate team out there, it may take a lot more than the Rooneys are willing to part with to sign him, particularly considering that he's decidedly on the downswing in a career that may only last another four or five years, if that.

Sean Mahan - Hi, I'm Sean Mahan. Did you know that I counted for more money against the cap in 2007 than Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu? The lady said it would be fine if I just wore my old jersey for the photo. Alan told me to grow a beard so when he picks up my missed assignments, nobody will be able to tell. I like coach Z. He doesn't work us too hard.

Mahan became the poster boy for bad offensive line play this season, with his flailing and falling and occasionally managing a chop block. He's listed at 6'3" 301 lbs, which means that he's 6'2", 285 lbs after lunch. One of the reasons Mahan has struggled this season is that he's not big enough. For example, twice a year he needs to line up across from Haloti Ngata, who is listed at 6'4", 340 lbs. I'd list how big John Henderson is but there is no bio for him on, because he killed it and ate it, then became upset and swatted a plane out of the sky with his hands.

Another reason Mahan had problems is that, unlike Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings and Mike Webster, he is bad at football. Routinely, he missed assignments (how do you do that when you're the center?), slipped off of blocks and fell down, making him that special kind of offensive lineman who not only is himself awful but actually makes his teammates worse. For roughly the first nine weeks of the year, he actually even projected the snap by holding his head down, then lifting it to face his man exactly one beat before snapping the ball. But hey, that's not a big deal. Helping the defensive front seven beat the line off the snap on every single down for more than half a season? It's OK, we've got Sean Fucking Mahan to stop them.

There's a reason this guy was picked at the bottom of the fifth round in 2003. There's a reason he was mostly used as a flex backup by a team with a bad offensive line. There's a reason Cadillac Williams can't walk today. There's a reason for the Kennedy Assassination. There's a reason for "Saved by the Bell." There's a reason for the New World Order. That reason is Sean Mahan.

Mahan at this point projects to become an unreasonably expensive backup guard next season as he is inevitably supplanted by overachieving undrafted free agent Darnell Stapleton, who impressed both in camp and by engaging in nonstop rocking at Rutgers for four years, making him the first person in history about whom that can be said. Worst-case scenario, Stapleton can fall down and get trampled by the jailbreak for league minimum.

Kendall Simmons - "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense," "False start: number 73 offense."

Kendall was supposed to be the new Alan Faneca. At an imposing 6'3", 315 lbs, Simmons came into camp with his diabetes under control and a terrifying new beard, wildly brandishing a new four-year, $23.1 million contract extension.

Then something happened when the regular season began. And it happened over and over again: "False start: number 73 offense."

The problem with Kendall Simmons is that he plays exactly as well today as he did his rookie year. He plays like a huge, fast guard with amazing physical gifts and concentration problems. Dude, you've been here for five years. You kind of need to know the snap count. And it doesn't help that when he isn't immediately engaged with a defender right off the ball - which kind of tends to happen on every single passing play - Simmons stands around and basically just looks confused.

It's discouraging when your five-year veteran first-round draft pick still doesn't know what to do when he's blocking in space. This may be remedied by an eventual move to left guard, where he'll likely be called upon to pull more frequently and will have his pass protections simplified by the need to help double the Haloti Ngatas of the world, but you kind of like to know that the guy you're counting on to be your single holdover interior lineman in a time of transition isn't going to take eight weeks to get his head in the game every single season.

Still, Simmons ought to be fine once his fingers start working again, and the possibility of a move to the left side might be good for everyone involved, and his biggest flaws are still nothing compared to Sean Mahan's fundamental inability to block.

Willie Colon - Rounding out the False Start Club we have Willie Colon, who is unremarkable in every conceivable way. In 2007, he accumulated false-start penalties at exactly the rate you'd expect of a first-year starter. He played exactly as well as you'd expect a guy drafted at the bottom of the fourth round out of Hofstra to play. If he were a Jeopardy question, the answer would be "This project right tackle, projected by every breathing General Manager in the NFL to play guard except the one who drafted him, landed a starting job when the team's project third-rounder celebrated his big Super Bowl win by putting on 30 lbs and sleeping through most of the 2006 season."

He played exactly well enough to merit that, Alex. There's really not much more to say - Willie Colon isn't that good, and the Steelers coaching staff should not expect him to be any better. It's not a big deal to have a somewhat disappointing, one-dimensional 4th rounder holding down one side of your line, but that's assuming that the rest of them can play.

On the up-side, according to the intergoogles, there is another Willie Colon, a delightful salsa trombonist with what appears to be a robust catalog of energizing and fanciful ditties. No comment from the South Side facilities on whether contract talks are in the works with that Willie Colon.

All told, the squad as a whole did not play exceptionally poorly, outside of the problems that should be easily predictable based on their personnel. Their undersized journeyman center could not get any push in the running game against the brutal defensive tackles of the AFC. Their perennially injured left tackle, already playing a position that he's barely good enough for, was hampered by injuries. A first-year starter with little pedigree and middling talent anchored down the right side of the line with predictable results. Obviously you're not going to be very good as a unit when the individual matchups break that way.

It shouldn't be discouraging to find that no one of them (except Mahan) played especially poorly, or is especially bad, but somehow it is. At this point, they're a bunch of Jacks with no Aces among them, and that makes it hard to justify a slash-and-burn rebuilding approach. You get the feeling that some of these guys could be pieces of a good line in the future, but that presents a baffling question: just what the hell would that look like?

1 comment:

Spinmove said...

It might be worth noting that Max Starks looked amazing at left tackle after Marvel's attempt to reenact all of O.J. Simpson's scenes from "The Naked Gun 2 1/2" landed him on IR.