Harris: Steelers making do with low picks up front
Calling a running play for Mewelde Moore in the end zone?
From the shotgun formation?
Behind this offensive line?
This was no joke. The Steelers didn't lose Sunday's game to the New York Jets because Moore was tackled for a safety. In fact, the play spoke to the coaching staff's confidence in their much-maligned offensive line against one of the NFL's better defenses.
Make no mistake, this wasn't Marvel Smith playing left tackle and Alan Faneca playing left guard.
No, this was the Steelers calling a play that trusted left tackle Jonathan Scott, a fifth-round pick, and left guard Chris Kemoeatu, a sixth-rounder, to bring their 'A' game late in the fourth quarter.
That's a lot of trust.
"I think you've got to give credit to that new offensive line coach (Sean Kugler), because he's done a pretty darn good job coaching those guys," said former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, who contributes to NFL.com and is a regular on the Sirius NFL Radio Network. "There just aren't enough offensive linemen out there that are Pro Bowlers."
Since Kemoeatu's specialty is run blocking, the coaching staff called a play that attempted to take advantage of what he does best: pulling to his right and wiping out potential tacklers. New York Jets defensive end Jason Taylor blew up the play before it started, knifing between Scott and Kemoeatu and tackling Moore for a safety.
The coaching staff's heart may have been in the right place. But the 3-yard line was the wrong place to call a running play from the shotgun with less than three minutes remaining.
"That's a hard block," Kemoeatu said. "A backside block is just as important as a frontside block."
Kemoeatu said the failed running play had potential. "There was a big gap when I pulled around," he said. "It could have been a 5, 15, 20-play drive."
Instead, the safety doomed the Steelers, who were forced to score a touchdown on their final drive instead of kicking a field goal that would have tied the score. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger failed to connect with backup tight end Matt Spaeth in the end zone on the final play.
The Steelers' offensive line has been a question mark for at least the past three years. It coincided with the departures of Faneca, Smith and right guard Kendall Simmons, along with the offense making the transition from a running team to a passing team.
The transition cost former offensive line coach Larry Zierlein his job.
Brandt believes the Steelers decided a few years ago to draft skill players on offense with high draft picks. Previously, the team used more of its high picks on offensive linemen.
When the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, their offensive line featured three first-round picks (Faneca, Smith and center Jeff Hartings, who was signed as a free agent), a second-rounder (Smith) and a third-rounder (Max Starks). Rookie center Maurkice Pouncey is the first offensive lineman the team selected in the first round since Simmons in 2002.
The Steelers drafted tight end Heath Miller in the first round in 2005, wide receiver Santonio Holmes in the first round in 2006, and running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round in 2008. Holmes now plays for the Jets. The team also invested third-round picks in wide receivers Mike Wallace (2009) and rookie Emmanuel Sanders.
The Steelers signed Roethlisberger to a $102 million contract extension during the 2008 offseason.
"They've got some great skill players," Brandt said. "I think you can probably win with lesser people on your offensive line than with lesser people at the skill positions. When they took Miller, they could have taken an offensive lineman. A lot of people thought that when they took Mendenhall, that was a good choice."
Conversely, Kemoeatu, a three-year starter, was the 204th overall player selected in 2005. Scott, the 141st overall selection in 2006, played with Detroit and Buffalo before joining the Steelers this season. He replaced Starks, who's on injured reserve. Right tackle Flozell Adams was a second-round pick in 1998. Right guard Ramon Foster was an undrafted free agent last season.
Veteran backup Trai Essex was a third-round pick in 2005. Like Foster, backup center/guard Doug Legursky was an undrafted free agent. The team is still waiting for tackle Tony Hills, a fourth-rounder in 2008, to develop. Rookie tackle Chris Scott was a fifth-round pick. Kraig Urbik, a third-rounder in 2009, was released prior to this season.
"They missed on the kid from Wisconsin (Urbik)," Brandt said. "Of course, Starks got hurt. Kemoeatu is a pretty good sixth-round pick. Scott went to Detroit first, then Buffalo. Both of those teams let him go. I would say somebody's doing a pretty good job of coaching him."
You could also say the Steelers are getting what they paid for.
The offense produced 378 total yards, featured scoring drives of 16, 10 and nine plays, and averaged 5.9 yards per carry against the Jets.
If anything, Kugler's unit is overachieving.
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