Uncertainty swirls around Steelers' plans for offensive line
Left tackle Max Starks didn't miss an offensive snap, right guard Ramon Foster missed very few. In a season of instability for the Steelers' offensive line, those two were the most reliable components.
In the ever-shifting world that is the Steelers' line, that probably means neither one is likely to be around next season.
The Steelers went through three right tackles, multiple left and right guards and game-to-game and, sometimes, play-to-play uncertainty along an offensive line that was challenged before the season by management and coaches alike to keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy and the running game going.
Roethlisberger was sacked 30 times, 10 fewer than a season ago, but played two fewer games than in 2011 — and the Steelers won four fewer games. Their season was effectively ruined when the most damaging of those sacks, against the Chiefs on Nov. 12, put Roethlisberger out for three games.
“Ben avoided a lot of sacks, and he can make plays,” said Charley Casserly, a former general manager who now works for NFL Network. “But when you couple the fact the offensive line had more issues than normal, that was a problem.”
The major problem was the running game's efficiency was confined mostly to a brief midseason stretch that produced the only three 100-yard games by a Steelers back all season. The result was one of the five worst rushing seasons in the team's modern era.
That's below the line by coach Mike Tomlin's standards — and that means that if 2012 was a disruptive year for the offensive line, 2013 figures to be even more so, with new starters possible at three positions.
Think that second-team All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey, who soon could be the elder statesman of the group based on experience, won't have his hands full?
“I am disappointed we're not more consistent running the ball,” team president Art Rooney II said. “It's strange because we did have games where we had good success and against good teams on occasion. I can't say that I have the answers ... but we've got to figure out what we need to do to get better.”
The first change will be a new offensive line coach to replace Sean Kugler, who left to coach alma mater UTEP.
Starks and Foster, both of whom were paid far less than most NFL starting linemen, are free agents whose expected departures would make an already young line even younger.
The biggest question is whether the Steelers can risk bringing back left guard Willie Colon, who struggled early on after moving from right tackle only to end up on injured reserve for a third consecutive season.
The Steelers would take a substantial salary cap hit by cutting him — nearly $6.5 million, based on the contract he renegotiated last year. They could bump two-thirds of that into their 2014 cap if they make the move after June 1, but that would only create cap-space problems next year.
Because it would save them only about $1.2 million by cutting Colon, they could gamble — again — he will stay healthy, but bringing him back might delay their youth movement.
If Colon doesn't return, they could start Mike Adams at left tackle, Kelvin Beachum at left guard, Maurkice Pouncey at center, David DeCastro at right guard and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle. Gilbert, at 25, would be the oldest, and three would be in only their second seasons.
Beachum was a guard through his 52-game college career at SMU, but played effectively at right tackle during his five starts there late in the season.
Which position does he prefer?
“Wherever I can start,” he said.
Starting all their young linemen would leave them thin on the bench; top backup Doug Legursky also is unsigned. They would have to address that in free agency or, as usual, the draft.
“Everybody in our room now has played,” Foster said. “We just have to get everybody healthy.”