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Steelers' offensive line is better, but will it be good enough?

Sunday, August 13, 2000

By Stan Savran

Understand that even if the Steelers' offensive line was in the pink of health, this unit would be a five-headed, 10-legged, 50-fingered, 1,500-pound question mark. The forward wall was clearly the most troubled of many such trouble spots a season ago.

If healthy, I believe the offensive line has the potential to be better. But even at its healthy best, it won't cause defensive lines to quiver.

Where lies this potential for improvement? Start where all plays do, at center. Just throwing the rock-solid Dermontti Dawson back in the middle of the pond will create ripples all the way to the tackles. Obviously, he upgrades his individual position. But he's also responsible for most of the blocking calls at the line of scrimmage, directing changes in assignments based on reading the defensive alignment. His value is undeniable. Unfortunately, so is his chronic hamstring problem. If his appearances this season are again sporadic, it won't much matter who's on his flank.

The Steelers have upgraded at right guard. Apparently the organization agreed with me that Brendan Stai's play was substandard. Rich Tylski is better, and he's a brawler. He may not be of blue-blood pedigree, but he'll scratch and claw and bite and kick and do, as a great coach used to say, whatever it takes. And this team as a whole has been sorely lacking in scratch and claw, one of the reasons for its dismal record of recent vintage.

I'm also betting that Wayne Gandy will be significantly better than his "Hello Pittsburgh" season. He already has been at camp. And it's time Alan Faneca stepped up. As a former No. 1 pick, it's time for him to upgrade his resume from just being a pedestrian starter on a below-.500 team.

Lastly, no matter who ends up being the starting right tackle, he's bound to be an improvement over the string of leadfoots they've been forced to use since Justin Strzelczyk's career was torn on the turf at Arrowhead Stadium.

The litany of the unlamented is as endless as it is embarrassing. Jamain -- that's how infamously bad he was; you don't even have to say his last name. Paul Wiggins, Chris Conrad, both wasted third-round picks. One hopes Kris Farris isn't another. Warm waiver-wire bodies Anthony Brown, Shar Pourdanesh, Larry Tharpe. Boy! And the hits (and misses) just keep on comin'! Perhaps they've finally found the answer in Marvel Smith.

Analyzing the switch of Smith from left side to right depends upon whether your glass is half-full or half-empty. If you're an optimist, you would say that the second-rounder was so impressive, the Steelers felt a need to get him in the lineup somewhere. And since your druthers wouldn't include playing a rookie on the left side, which would cause the premiums for your quarterback's health insurance to skyrocket, right tackle would be the right spot. If your glass ranges from half empty to bone dry, you would suggest Smith was moved because his predecessors were so inept, they had no choice.

Whatever the level of liquid in your cup, it's a wise move. Get the kid in there. This team isn't likely to challenge for much more than a .500 season, so what have you got to lose by playing him, especially when you consider your alternatives? While there is some valid concern about him having never played the right side before, I believe that if you can play left tackle, you can play right tackle. The reverse isn't necessarily true. But once he learns the footwork, bottom line, either he can play or he can't. Why wait a year to find out?

There's a school of thought that your right tackle has to be more of a physical player and that, apparently, is not Smith's game. I say you can take all that and stuff it in sausage casing. "There's the guy you're supposed to block, Marvel. Just block him. We don't much care how."

There's no shortage of questions surrounding this team. But none is more urgent than the one which shrouds this offensive line.

If you have a solid five-man front, you can evaluate your quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and your offense as a whole. If you don't , you can't evaluate anything.

While I believe this offensive line, if healthy, will be better, another nagging question remains. Better than what?

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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