Monday, February 12, 2007

Getting Draft Ready - Assessing the
Offensive Line

Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this posting it was incorrectly reported that Chukky Okobi did not start in place of Jeff Hartings during the 2006 season. My thanks to the loyal reader who pointed out the error, and my apologies for the mistake.

There isn't a more important unit to the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers than the offensive line, and during this offseason there isn't a unit that is more unsettled. With the retirement of Jeff Hartings, and the free agency status of Max Starks (restricted) and Barrett Brooks (unrestricted) there are clearly important decisions to be made.

Though they are also receivers, the tight ends are also getting a look here if only because there isn't much that is found wanting. Heath Miller is a good run blocker, who is improving, and as a pass catcher he has 73 receptions over his first two seasons and 852 yards receiving. His backup, Jerame Tuman, has been an above average run blocker and an adequate pass receiver. Finally, Jonathan Dekker -- a Bill Cowher favorite -- is still on the roster.

Of course the offensive line proper is anchored by its guards, Kendall Simmons and Alan Faneca, and while that should remain the case remember this: In five seasons Mr. Simmons has played all sixteen games only twice; and while Mr. Faneca hasn't missed a game in the last five seasons, he is now the oldest of the Steelers' offensive linemen (he turned 30 in December). So even in strength there are questions. At the tackles Max Starks and Marvel Smith -- backed up by Willie Colon and Trai Essex -- are firmly entrenched as starters despite what was a very inconsistent 2006 season.

And then there is the center position.

Jeff Hartings retirement was rumored about last offseason, which led Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic to advocate the drafting of Nick Mangold (the Ohio State center who started sixteen games for the New York Jets in 2006). Now Mr. Hartings has retired, and it appears that Chukky Okobi, who accounts for $2,456,000 of the Steelers' salary cap space in 2007, will assume the starting position. However, with only seven games played in six seasons -- and only two in the last four seasons -- he remains an unproven commodity. Additionally, given that Mr. Okobi's cap number climbs in 2008 and 2009, next season is undoubtedly the most important of his career. Causing some additional concern is that Mr. Okkobi's backup, at this point, is Marvin Phillip who struggled during his rookie season. All of this may lead the Steelers to look at unrestricted free agents like Robbie Tobek (Seahawks) and Jeremy Newberry (Forty-Niners).

Of course all of this concern stems from the significant drop-off in performance by this unit from 2005 to 2006. The experts at Football Outsiders have developed a statistical measure to evaluate the effectiveness of offensive lines, and the Steelers' group dropped from twelfth (2005) to twenty-second (2006). One of the more telling measures within this statistical analysis is what Football Outsiders call "power success" (i.e. the ability to gain first downs when running on third or fourth down, with two or fewer yards to go). The Steelers' offensive line ranked 20th. This inability to employ a "smash mouth" approach offensively led to this: In 2006, on third down and less than five yards to go, the Steelers passed the ball nearly 71% of the time. Additionally, total rushing yardage in 2006 was nearly 12% less than the previous season; and quarterback sacks were up by nearly 35% -- the most allowed in any season during the last seven years.

No unit within the Steelers is more important to winning and losing than the offensive line. In 2006 the team and offensive line both struggled; and the new season, still off in the distance, promises to be filled with significant challenges to be met and questions to be answered.

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