Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The thin black and gold line

In spite of Sunday’s 24-20 loss to the Colts, the Steelers are still on most people’s short list of NFL playoff contenders. The loss caused them to drop only one spot in ESPN’s weekly power rankings—from #3 to #4.

Much of this respect is due to the Steelers’ defense, which leads the league in total defense (240.3 yards allowed per game) and passing defense (171.1 yards), and is second to the Baltimore Birdies (thanks, Myron) in rushing defense (69.2 yards).

The weakest link, as it has been over the past few seasons, is the offensive line, which could be the biggest thing standing between the Steelers and another Super Bowl.

Consider that Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 28 times so far this season, behind only J.T. O’Sullivan (32) and Matt Cassel (29). Not good company for someone with a Super Bowl ring to be keeping. The sacks are beginning to take their physical toll on Ben, and some pundits are wondering if he isn’t destined for a short career.

The Steelers can’t say they weren’t warned.

Even when the Steelers have been at their best, the biggest mistakes—the sacks, the rushed passes that turn into interceptions, the failed conversions on fourth-and-goal—can be traced directly to the weak offensive line. Things have gotten worse since Alan Faneca left for the big money and bigger expenses of New York City.

The biggest puzzle on draft day was why the Steelers did not address their offensive line needs. I shook my head as they took Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed in the first two rounds, despite the 2008 draft being the most lineman-rich draft in recent memory. The only lineman chosen was Tony Hills in the fourth round. He will take some time to develop, as he ended his college career at Texas with a broken fibula. Hook this ‘Horn for later.

The only new free agent acquisition on the line is center Justin Hartwig, who at least makes fewer high snaps than Sean Mahan.

I’m reminded of the old Isotoner Gloves ad that showed Dan Marino giving his offensive line gloves for Christmas (in Miami?). The slogan: “Take care of the hands that take care of you.”

The Steelers’ first priority for the off-season is finding some hands to take better care of Ben.

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