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Savran: For Steelers and Pitt, line is heart of matter

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Of lines and linemen.

They have many problems that are great, and they won't be able to solve all of them in one off-season. But the Steelers might be well on their way to finding a solution to one of their biggest problems -- the offensive line.

If Alan Faneca plays well at left tackle, and there's no reason to expect he won't, the move might extend beyond the temporary. When Marvel Smith returns, be it this year or next, he could return to right tackle where he has proved to be more than capable. That gives you a pair of pretty sturdy bookends.

The books in between would become the question.

If, among Kendall Simmons, Chucky Okobi, Keydrick Vincent and Jeff Hartings, they find a solid trio to fill in between the tackles, bingo, you've rediscovered an offensive line.

Yes, you're losing an All-Pro guard by moving him one position to the left, but who's to say Faneca won't become an All-Pro tackle? And if you operate on the generally accepted assumption that the blind-side tackle is the most important position on the line, it's a move you have to be willing to make.

It's difficult to draft and expensive to sign a Pro Bowl tackle. Why not use the one you might already have?

It's also difficult to recruit top-flight offensive linemen. You can ask Walt Harris about that. Fans are wont to say, "Pitt has too much talent to be playing like this!" Depends on how you define talent.

Most people's definition of talent begins and ends with the skill positions. At those sexy positions, Pitt's recruiting cup has runneth over. However, if you subscribe to the hackneyed but nonetheless true axiom that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage, then Pitt's cup has been nearly bone dry.

During the Harris era, only one offensive lineman has been selected in the NFL draft.

One.

That one was drafted this year in the seventh and final round. By comparison, Notre Dame had four offensive linemen selected in this year's draft. Granted, the number of players drafted from a team doesn't necessarily translate into a successful season. Some guys are very good college players who don't fit the pro game. But it is an indicator. Even this year's mediocre Notre Dame team dominated Pitt, on both sides of the ball.

This is the school of Mark May and Bill Fralic, Jimbo Covert and Russ Grimm. Think of the offensive lines from those halcyon days of the mid-'70s through the early '80s. There was talent everywhere, but nowhere as consistently as on the line, where Pitt enjoyed its own version of Hog Heaven. Offensive linemen aren't just Hogs, they have talent too. And Pitt needs a lot more of it.

The parallels between the Steelers and Pitt this particular season are rather amazing, are they not?

It's not that Jerome Bettis is a better running back than Amos Zereoue, it's that he's a better fit for this team at this time. I have no delusions that Jerome somehow took a dunk at Lourdes this week and that he'll come busting out of his garage tomorrow like a retro Bus, circa 1997. No, time waits for no man nor Bus, and the natural decline has been accelerated by ten thousand helmets to his thighs. But given the altered state of this offensive line, he's the best answer for the Steelers' mothballed running game, at least for now.

Bill Cowher, undoubtedly intending to defuse a potentially disruptive controversy in his locker room, told Zereoue he had done nothing wrong. Yes, he did. While fully recognizing that Casey Hampton could run effectively behind a great offensive line, Zereoue has not run like an every-down running back. Not every play can be strictly suited to your particular running style. Sometimes as an every-down back you have to plunge headfirst into the abyss, which means running tough inside the tackles. That is a no dancing zone. You don't juke nose tackles ... there's neither time nor space. Sometimes, you can't swing for the home run. Sometimes you just have to settle for advancing the ball. Until he learns that, Zereoue will be a specialty back. Which is not to minimize the importance of that role.

I've been saying/writing for some time now that Bettis/Zereoue are better in tandem than either one is individually. I also have expressed the opinion that while Zereoue is invaluable as a contributor in his designated role, he just wasn't an every-down running back.

If Heinz Field is the scene of two losses by the locals this weekend, there will be yet another parallel between the two occupants: Their football seasons will be significantly closer to being over than the calendar might suggest.


Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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