COMMENTARY | Enigma: 1. A puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation. 2. A person of puzzling or contradictory character. 3. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Offensive Line.
It's become a yearly tradition to question the value and potential productivity of the Steelers' offensive line, an annual wringing of hands that has been going on for a decade or longer. Even in the Super Bowl seasons of 2005 and 2008, the consensus opinion was that the championships were won in spite of the O-Line and certainly not because of them. Every offseason seems to be the same in this regard, with the big men in the trenches being pointed out as a team weakness. The microscope placed upon them is heightened all the more because of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the obvious need to protect the franchise player with the $102 million contract.
At this time last year, Steeler Nation had a bit more reason than usual for optimism after the team spent their first two draft picks on highly regarded linemen. Guard David DeCastro of Stanford was selected in the first round while Ohio State tackle Mike Adams was chosen in the second. They were to join an existing group that included All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and 2011 second round draft pick tackle Marcus Gilbert.
Unfortunately, this early hopefulness was dashed before the regular season even started, as DeCastro was lost for most of the year after going down with a knee injury in the third preseason game against Buffalo. Adams also battled injury, playing in 10 games and starting in just six. He also struggled mightily in pass protection when he did play; allowing seven sacks and 15 quarterback hurries in those 10 games. Gilbert fared no better, playing in just 5 games before being placed on IR in November. The simple fact that 30 year-old Max Starks came off the street during training camp and became the best player on the line (after Pouncey) tells you all you need to know about the unit.
This season, like a football-themed Groundhog Day, here we go again. The Black & Gold faithful are optimistic that the offensive line will finally gel, stay healthy and play at a consistently high level. While I would love to share this sentiment, my job requires that I remain objective. I view the offensive line as if they were a see-saw: they could go up or they could go down.
Let's start with these young guys. DeCastro was regarded as a sure-fire top 15 pick going into last year's draft. Some experts said he was the best guard prospect to come out of college since Alan Faneca (boy, do I miss him on the Steelers' line). So why, then, did he fall to Pittsburgh with the 24th pick? It's commonly regarded that the guard position is not highly coveted by NFL teams, and that simple fact alone could explain DeCastro's drop.
If that is the case, however, it was debunked last month when the two highest rated guard prospects in the 2013 draft - North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper and Alabama's Chance Warmack - were selected seventh and tenth respectively.
One small knock against DeCastro coming out of college was that although he was a master tactician, he lacked power and could struggle against stronger defensive linemen. This seemed to play itself out last preseason, as he failed to impress throughout training camp and often looked overmatched.
DeCastro admitted as much, according to Roethlisberger, who in an interview with Mike Bires of the Beaver County Times said that the lineman was struggling with the physical part of the game.
"I talked to him the other day," Roethlisberger said. "I said, 'How you doing? Evaluate yourself.' "He said it's different. I said what do you mean? He said it's tough. I said what's the tough part, the mental or the physical? He said, 'The mental part I got. The physical is a lot tougher. These guys are really good.'"
The hope here is that DeCastro has spent considerable time in the weight room this offseason, improving his strength and power so that he can hold up better against some of the behemoth defensive linemen he will face, like Baltimore's Haloti Ngata. If DeCastro has not improved in this area, one would expect his struggles to continue this coming season.
Adams' biggest concerns heading into the draft last year were off-field issues. He, along with Terrelle Pryor and others were called into question for selling off some of their Ohio State memorabilia for cash and tattoos. He was also fond of smoking marijuana, so much so that he couldn't even stay clean for the NFL combine, failing his drug test at this most important job interview. The drug use seems to be behind him as he has apparently stayed clean since then, but if Jacksonville's Justin Blackmon is any indication, a relapse is always possible, and with it a suspension from the league.
More worrisome is Adams' poor pass protection, especially at left tackle where he must protect Roethlisberger's blind side. It almost guarantees that he will be lining up on the right side this season. There, his slow feet won't be as much of a glaring weakness, and his run blocking should help open holes for whoever starts at running back. The biggest concern here is that if Gilbert is injured again, then Adams is back at left tackle, and those high sack numbers continue to haunt him.
With Gilbert, not only is he a significant injury concern, but there seemed to be little improvement from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign. While his play has been acceptable, he is by no means a stellar lineman and his lack of progress is a concern.
Pouncey, on the other hand, continues to improve and show his dominance at the center position. He is athletic and, what the Steelers love the most, he has a nasty streak. It's hard to find fault with Pouncey, other than to say that he, too, has a bit if an injury history. To make matters worse, those injuries have typically come towards the end of the season, causing Pouncey to miss games in the playoffs when the team actually needs him the most.
There is little depth for the line as well, with starter Ramon Foster being the most experienced lineman, after Starks and Willie Colon were not resigned. Throw in the fact that the team has a new offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell, Jr., who has an entirely different philosophy than previous coach Sean Kugler, and you have yet another hurdle that this unit has to contend with.
While it is entirely possible that everything comes together for Pittsburgh's line, there are a lot of things that have to go just right for this to happen. For now, the questions remain and we have no answers yet for this enigma.
Sheldon Rodgers is a Pittsburgh native and is the third in a fourth generation Black & Gold Family. He has been published in the Butler Eagle, FantasyPharaoh.com, and multiple other newspapers and websites.
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