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Steelers need to open up wallet for offensive linemen

| Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

Let's hope the Steelers break from tradition and negotiate new contracts during the season for offensive linemen Marvel Smith and Chris Kemoeatu so they can finish their careers in Pittsburgh.

In particular, let's hope the Steelers brass learned a valuable lesson from Sunday's blowout victory against the Houston Texans regarding the importance of being able to line up one of the top left tackles in the NFL.

Smith -- all 6-foot-5, 321 pounds of him -- is a bad man. And that's meant in a good way.

First, let's clear up any concerns about Smith's offseason back surgery. His back is fine. If it wasn't, he wouldn't have been able to slug it out with Houston defensive end Mario Williams. Smith gave as good as he got against Williams, a big-time talent.

Contrast that with Houston rookie left tackle Duane Brown, who was hopelessly overmatched against outside linebacker James Harrison in his first NFL game.

That isn't to say Brown, who cost the Texans a first-round draft pick, won't develop into a fine player over time. What it means is that starting an inexperienced rookie at left tackle -- the most critical position on the offensive line -- can be an experiment in futility, with potentially painful results for the quarterback he is paid handsomely to protect.

So, what does Brown's plight have to do with the Steelers• Glad you asked.

Say, for example, the Steelers don't re-sign Smith, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Based on the fact that teams almost never allow their good left tackles to leave, Smith would be poised to sign the most lucrative contract for an offensive lineman in league history. The Steelers wouldn't be able to afford him.

The Steelers, instead, would be forced to draft a left tackle and throw him right into the mix, or re-sign Max Starks and start him at left tackle. That's right, the same Max Starks currently being paid nearly $7 million this season to sit behind starting Willie Colon at right tackle.

Option No. 3 would be Trai Essex, who will also be an unrestricted free agent after the season and doesn't really have the prototypical build to play left tackle on a full-time basis. Option No. 4 isn't really an option at all. Tony Hills, the Steelers' fourth-round draft pick, was inactive for the opener.

As for the current state of the Steelers offensive line, Colon cautioned everyone against throwing a parade after just one game.

On the other hand, imagine the negative fallout if Williams and Houston's defensive front had dominated the Steelers offensive line and made life miserable for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker.

"We're not going to pat ourselves on the back and say we're the best. We've got a lot of work to do," Colon said. "We understand we've got to get better each and every time, but it's a step in the right direction."

If the Steelers don't want to imagine life without Smith, their best offensive lineman, they must reward his loyalty by paying for his talent.

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