The Steelers had a great season in 2008 winning their sixth Super Bowl but their offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times on only 469 pass attempts and the running game ranked 29th in the NFL with only 3.7 yards per carry. It was the first time since 2003 that the Steelers averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry and it was obvious that the loss of Alan Faneca had something to do with that.
Starting at left tackle for the Steelers will be the 27-year old Max Starks who has started 45 games in the past four seasons at both tackle positions. Starks is very big and strong at 6’8” and 340 lbs but has pretty slow feet. He is a very good run blocker and does an excellent job of sealing the edge but will struggle at times in pass protection. He improved a lot in pass protection last season but he still allowed 4.0 sacks in 11 games. Starks will never be a great tackle but he should be an average or slightly above average left tackle for the next four years for the Steelers. Opposite of Starks will be Willie Colon who started all 32 regular season games for the Steelers in the past two seasons. Colon stole the starting right tackle job from Starks in 2007 but has not been very impressive since then. He is not as big at 6’3” and 315 lbs and has pretty slow feet so he struggles with speedy rushers. Colon can still get stronger but he is good when blocking in small areas and he may have a better future at guard in the NFL. He ranked 17th amongst right tackles with 5.75 sacks allowed and is one of the reasons why the Steelers struggled all year long when running to the right. Colon still has time to improve since he is only 26 years old but for now he remains average in pass protection and below average in run blocking. Adding depth at tackle are Trai Essex who has not started a game in three years and Tony Hills who was drafted in the fourth round last year but still has a lot of work to do.
Chris Kemoeatu will enter his second season as the starting left guard after taking over for the now eight-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca. Kemoeatu is a big and strong guard at 6’3” and 345 lbs but he has very little mobility. He is a good run blocker if he is asked to block right in front of him but he does not have the ability to pull to the outside. He also struggles with lateral movements in pass protection and gets beaten by quick and strong defensive linemen as we saw last year. He ranked 31st amongst left guards with 7.5 sacks allowed and is also known for making quite a few mental mistakes. Overall, Kemoeatu is strong and big and is a good run blocker up the middle but struggles in all other aspects of the position. The other side isn’t much better with the 23-year old Darnell Stapleton. The 6’3” and 305 lbs guard took over for the starting job when Simmons went down with an injury in week four and allowed 5.0 sacks in only 12 starts. Stapleton is a little better in run blocking than in pass protection but remains below average in both. The Steelers added Kraig Urbik in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft hoping that he can compete with Stapleton for the starting job. He is much bigger at 6’5” and 330 lbs and has good mobility for his size. Urbik may not yet be ready but he is very likely to start within the next two years and has potential to be a solid guard in the NFL.
Justin Hartwig will return at center after starting all 16 games last season. He is pretty big for a center at 6’4” and 315 lbs but lacks strength and does not have a good enough technique to make up for it. He will often get pushed into the backfield in pass protection but does have the ability to create some holes in the running game. Hartwig ranked last amongst centers with 6.5 sacks allowed in 2008 and will probably continue to struggle until he is surrounded by better guards. 2009 seventh round pick A.Q. Shipley adds depth at center.
The Steelers line struggled all year long in 2008 and it is likely to be the case again in 2009. The five starters that will return this year started the final 11 games in 2008 and in those games the Steelers allowed 30 sacks and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Things could however be slightly better than that this year since four of the five linemen are 27 years of age or under. In terms of depth, the Steelers aren’t in much better shape since the four backups have a total of four career starts. It is never good news when your top backup is a rookie that was drafted in the third round. Overall we expect the Steelers line to be slightly better in both pass protection and run blocking this year but they would be in big trouble if either of the tackles or even Hartwig were to be hurt.