Depth Perceptions: Pittsburgh Steelers' Offensive Line

Mike Blewitt@mikeblewittCorrespondent IAugust 14, 2009

There is no ingenious way to express how well last season went for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When you win it all, it went just fine thank you very much. With a dominant defense and a capable offense, the Steelers find themselves on the top of the leader board for Super Bowl Championships yet again and remain virtually intact for another run at the title in 2009.

However, one unit that needed to be addressed on that title team was the oft-criticized offensive line.

The Steelers uncharacteristically had problems rushing the ball effectively (23rd in the league in rushing), particularly in goal-line situations, and saw QB Ben Roethlisberger take an inordinate number of sacks (49 in all at the position, fourth most in the league).

While they were able to overcome impact injuries on the line to a few players, it was still in need of some changes heading into this season.

The Steelers decided not to make a play for left tackle Marvel Smith, who was with the team for nine seasons and earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2004; he is now a San Francisco 49er.

Additionally, they did not make an offer to free agent guard Kendall Simmons; a 2002 first-round draft pick that missed 12 games due to injury during last season’s run. The Steelers did, however, retain several players on the O-Line that they feel will be an improved unit as they log more time together this season.

Let’s take a closer look at the expected lineup in 2009.

Max Starks—Starks filled in at left tackle for the injured Marvel Smith for the final 11 games of the regular season and into the playoffs. His progression throughout his six years in Pittsburgh has been good enough that the Steelers decided to re-sign him to a four-year deal totaling $26 million.

While Starks is not considered an elite left tackle, his massive size (6’8”, 345 lbs.) and experience all over the offensive line give the coaching staff confidence that he is the man who will protect Big Ben’s blind side.

Chris Kemoeatu
—"Kemo” had bigger shoes to fill than anyone on the team in 2008 when he replaced the departed perennial All-Pro Alan Faneca in the lineup. He did so ably and earned himself a $20 million contract from the Steelers over the next five years.

While he will likely never reach the standard that Faneca set, he has shown the improvement in his first three seasons to become a staple at left guard alongside Starks.

Justin Hartwig
—The most experienced player returning on the O-Line acquitted himself quite well in 2008, his first with the team. His intelligence and gritty play at center make him a perfect fit as this line continues to search for continuity.

Hartwig entered camp with a toe injury but all signs are that he should be ready for Week One versus the Titans. If that toe injury lingers, that could be a significant blow to the cohesion up front.

Darnell Stapleton—Amazingly, Stapleton took over at right guard in his rookie season for the injured Kendall Simmons and started the last 12 games and each playoff contest in 2008.

It seems his best bet long-term is center due to a lack of imposing size, but his flexibility is a great asset for Pittsburgh to have in the years to come. Unfortunately, Stapleton underwent a knee scope recently and will be sidelined two to four weeks. He will likely be ready to go for Week 1 but his conditioning will take a hit as he recovers.

Willie Colon
—Colon has started every game at right tackle for the past two years and will continue that streak in 2009. While he does not possess ideal size or skill for a tackle, his mean streak and aggressive play earn him respect amongst teammates and coaching staff, though the latter could do without the penalties that arise from such play.

Trai Essex
—Essex is the versatile sixth man that teams love to have on their O-line. The Steelers are comfortable that Essex provides great depth from week-to-week and can fill in on the line if someone goes down during the season. For now, he is taking Stapleton’s spot as he is on the mend.

Tony Hills
—Hills’ first season in the league in 2008 was primarily spent bulking up and learning NFL schemes. He is viewed as having a potentially big upside at tackle in the next couple of years, although he will just be providing depth to start off the 2009 season. Jason Capizzi and Ramon Foster will be fighting Hills for second-team snaps at tackle during camp.

Kraig Urbik
—The Steelers’ second pick in this year’s draft, Urbik has excellent size for a guard and a nasty attitude to match. He will likely be counted on to contribute right away on some basis, especially if injuries pile up during the year.

A.Q. Shipley
—A decorated center at Penn State, Shipley was taken in the seventh round of this year’s draft. He is likely as a long-term solution at center, though he could get pressed into action sooner if other injuries pile up at any point this year. Five-year veteran Alex Stepanovich and Doug Legursky will also be battling for that backup center spot.


While it is accurate that some of the blame for the absurdly high sack total in 2008 is Big Ben’s penchant for holding the ball and making plays, it is certainly not the entire reason. The O-line looked over-matched in certain games last year (Eagles, Giants) but came together enough down the stretch to help the team to a SB XLIII win.

The amount of time this unit has spent playing together already, which could continue for all of this season, is a huge positive. Also, each starter is under 30 with the exception of Hartwig and is established going into Week One of the 2009 season which bodes well for the future.

However, the Steelers’ offensive line does not yet have the look of an elite unit and with injuries mounting in the preseason, they may face some tough times again in 2009. I expect an improvement to their play overall this season but against some of the better defenses in the league, they will struggle.

The real question is if it will be just enough, again, to earn them a seventh Super Bowl title.

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