The enigma that is the Steelers offensive line

Written by Will Spencer on April 22, 2010

By special guest writer, AJ Barravechio

When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line, what comes to mind? Due to the image that has been portrayed for years now, it probably makes you think of sacks upon sacks. While this does appear to be a major problem for the Steelers, who is to be blamed for this? The line themselves? The quarterback that is heralded as “elite?” The coaching staff and their schemes? While it is easy to believe that the line should bear the full burden of protecting the quarterback, sometimes we have to look closely at the situation in order to discover the truth.

It seems that for the past four years, national as well as local media have been calling for the Steelers to draft an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft. Many mock drafts have been shown with Pittsburgh selecting either Idaho’s offensive guard or Florida’s versatile center, Maurkice Pouncey. While I am not saying that either of those players will not be productive players in the NFL, if you take a close look at the Steelers, it is clear to see that whoever is on the offensive line will most likely look bad by season’s end.

Take 2004 for example, Ben Roethlisberger’s first season in the NFL. Roethlisberger took 30 sacks on a total of 325 drop backs. In 2005, the following season, he took only 23 sacks. However, this sack total came while he attempted only 291 drop backs! This was a Super Bowl season for the Steelers and the offensive line was highly touted as one of the best in the NFL. This offensive line consisted of pro bowler Marvel Smith, pro bowler Alan Faneca, pro bowler Jeff Hartings, former 1st round pick Kendall Simmons, and 3rd round pick Max Starks. This was the same starting line up that would start the 2006 season. In that abysmal 8-8 season, Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times on a whopping 515 drop backs! To verify, the Steelers started three pro bowlers and a 1st round pick, and still managed to give up 46 sacks. The difference? The amount of drop backs. In one season, Roethlisberger’s drop backs went from 291 to 515 and his sack numbers spiked because of it. The very low sack total of 23 was not due to the very good line that was in front of him, it was due to the fact that the Steelers rarely passed. Now, fast forward to 2008. The starting line consists of Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton, and Willie Colon, none of whom were selected higher than the 3rd round. Roethlisberger would end the season with 515 drop backs and took 46 sacks, identical to the numbers put up in 2006. To recap, the Steelers would give up the same exact amount of sacks on the same exact amount of drop backs in 2006 and 2008.

It is amazing that a line that was considered one of the best in football would end up giving up the same amount of sacks as a line that was labeled the “worst ever to win a Super Bowl.” Also, in the game that Dennis Dixon started in 2009, against a very, very good Ravens defense, the line gave up zero sacks. In Ben Roethlisberger’s start against that same Ravens defense, he was sacked 4 times for a loss of 21 yards. This being said, it appears that regardless of who is blocking, Ben Roethlisberger will always take large amounts of sacks. Thus, drafting a guy like Mike Iupati or Maurkice Pouncey could almost be viewed as a waste to some Steelers fans. While many media members and fans would rejoice at the selection initially, they will most likely learn what many people have discovered about the Steelers. Regardless of who is starting on the Steelers offensive line, there will always be complaints about the high sack numbers.

It seems that the Steelers have much bigger issues on the defensive side of the ball and should probably address those needs. A corner back like Kyle Wilson or Kareem Jackson, in my opinion, would be much better for the Steelers as a team. The defense of 2009 plagued the team much more than the unheralded offensive line did. And as for Steelers fans, all you can do is hope that the Steelers don’t turn in that card with an offensive lineman’s name on it on Thursday night.

Will Spencer

Will is the founder and President of Draft Breakdown & has been scouting draft prospects since 2002. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including the USA Today Draft Preview Magazine, the official website of the Baltimore Ravens, Ravens Insider and The Orange and Brown Report. Will has previous playing experience as a defensive end in the AFA, is currently a member of the Football Writers Association of America and graduated from the SMWW Football Scouting course in 2009.

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