Monday, April 21, 2008

Reading the Tea Leaves

Late in the 2007 season, as the Steelers struggled through four losses in their last five games, lack of depth on the defensive line became glaringly apparent. After having gone more than 30 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the Steelers run defense was shredded in games against the Jets and Jaguars (twice), and was pressed by several other running attacks, including Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Run defense is a team effort, particularly with the front seven in a 3-4 defense, but with the Steelers, run defense always starts up front, on the defensive line.

Stalwart All-Pros Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith have anchored the D-line for years. and veteran backups Travis Kirschke and Chris Hoke have also served admirably. New starter Brett Keisel stepped in last year and performed well, too.

A closer look at the Steelers defensive line, however, reveals it is aging badly and, worse, lacks depth. When the 2008 season starts, Kirschke will be 34, Smith and Hoke will be 32, and Hampton will be 31.

NFL Players over 30 tend to break down and become more injury-prone as they continue to age, so it is imperative the Steelers infuse the defensive line with new talent this year.

It sucks that the team has only six draft picks this year. If ever there was a year to have supplemental picks, this is it. The Bengals and Ravens have multiple supplemental picks, and the Steelers have none. It seems inequitable, but that's how it is.

While there is no clear consensus as to what makes sense at pick number 23 in the first round, it's clear the Steelers would do well to add two players to the defensive line mix, and that would be a full one-third of this year's draft class.

By our reckoning, three top defensive line prospects may be available when the Steelers pick in the first round: Florida DE Derrick Harvey (6-5, 252), Clemson DE Phillip Merling (6-5, 272), and North Carolina DE Kentwan Balmer (6-5, 308). Harvey and Merling excel at the pass rush. Balmer is more of an all-round, every-down player in the mold of the Steelers' own Aaron Smith.

In a prior post, we dissed Balmer by noting he was pretty much off the radar until he emerged in his senior season under head coach Butch Davis, and we're skeptical of anybody associated with Butch Davis.

To be fair, that's not Balmer's fault; and, to his credit, he did blossom during his senior season after a previously undistinguished career. Whether that development will continue in the NFL is the $23 million question. That, along with the question as to whether he will even be available when the Steelers pick.

If Balmer is there at 1.23, the Steelers would have to seriously consider selecting him, even if the smaller, pass-rushing Harvey and/or Merling are available, both of whom are more suited to playing end in a conventional 4-3 defense, and neither of whom is considered to be particularly stout against the run. Of the two (Harvey & Merling), Harvey has the better pedigree and would be the more intriguing pick, based on his success in the SEC as a sack specialist at Florida. Of the three, Balmer probably fits the Steelers' scheme best. You're always looking to improve the pass rush, of course; but with the Steelers, stopping the run comes first.

Balmer certainly has the right size for defensive end in the Steelers' 4-3 scheme, and he looks athletic enough — again, in the mold of Aaron Smith.

Most importantly, and here's the kicker, the Steelers absolutely need an infusion of youth, muscle and athleticism on their defensive line. Balmer would be a classic "need pick," to be sure, but he would (presumably) add desperately needed youth, depth, athleticism and muscle to the defensive line rotation. Then there's this observation from one of the scouting reports: "He has a strong hand punch to shock and jolt blockers, evident by his solid play in containing the run in 2007."

While veteran journeyman Nick Eason proved last year he can be, eh, okay in the rotation, there's certainly room for improvement. We saw what happened when Eason was pressed into a starting role after Aaron Smith went down. The Steelers suddenly became vulnerable to the run, and the team absolutely cannot allow that vulnerability to continue or fester, under any circumstances.

That's why Joey Porter's Pit Bulls believe the Steelers are beginning to lean toward making Kentwan Balmer the team's first-round selection on Saturday. Disclaimer: Joey Porter's Pit Bulls don't necessarily endorse this pick. We have concerns about Balmer's short track record of success, as well as a dodgy hamstring that limited his workout during North Carolina's Pro Day. We just think this might be what the Steelers are thinking.

Also on the Defensive Line

On Sunday, with a later pick, we'd consider adding NT Red Bryant (6-3, 328), Texas A&M.

And here's why, from

"One of the terms used to describe a defensive lineman is that the player is an efficient "run stuffer." Perhaps no one player has been more important to his team in shutting down the opposition's running game than Joseph "Red" Bryant.

In the eight games that he appeared in for the Aggies in 2006, they allowed just 75.35 yards per game on the ground. In the five contests Bryant sat out due to a knee injury, TAMU was tagged for 229.2 yards per game rushing.

Selected one of the squad captains as a redshirt freshman, Bryant has dominated vs. the run since his first start in College Station. In three seasons in the middle of the Aggies' defense, Bryant has made 83 plays vs. the run, holding the opposition to only 46 yards (0.55 yards per attempt).

As a sophomore, he was a force, making 31 running plays that saw his opponent be held to an incredible minus-27 yards (minus-0.87-yard average). He followed that performance with 19 running plays for 12 yards (0.63-yard average) during his injury-shortened junior year."

With Hampton, Kirschke and Hoke all over 30, it's time to shore up the run defense on the interior line. Bryant looks like he could help.

Together, Balmer and Bryant would count for 33 percent of the Steelers' draft board. We don't like it – in fact, we'd hate to commit two of six picks to one area of need – but stopping the run is just that important. Stopping the run will help the defense get off the field and re-set the crucial time-of-possession ratio that had the Steelers at an unfamiliar disadvantage all too often last season. That, in turn will help the offense.

Which brings us to …

The Offensive Line

On the other side of the ball, protecting the quarterback and improving the running game go hand-in-hand as parallel top priorities on offense. Improvement in each area starts at the point of attack, on the offensive line.

Right now, the O-line looks like a mix 'n match patchwork crazy-quilt, and that is a major concern. In fact, it might be the major concern, notwithstanding what we said above.

Three months ago, we advocated spending two of the Steelers' first three picks on the offensive line. That might still happen, but if does, it appears those picks would be in the second and third rounds.

Reading the tea leaves in statements by Kevin Colbert, we're beginning to think the Steelers will address the offensive line later in the draft, rather than sooner.

Here's why …

We cannot fathom what the Steelers' braintrust was thinking when they applied the transition tag to Max Starks, but their deal with Starks really hamstrings their flexibility on draft day. But it's done, and unless they somehow persuade Starks to re-work his deal, he will be the team's second-highest player with a one-year, guaranteed salary of $6.9 million. Starks, a player who was relegated to backup duty for much of last season, now almost has to start at the vital right tackle position this season.

With Marvel Smith hopefully returning to health at left tackle, it almost doesn't make sense to draft a tackle with the first pick — which is not to say the team wouldn't improve itself with an infusion of talent at the tackle position. It just appears that Kevin Colbert firmly believes his oft-repeated assertion that this is the strongest and deepest draft at the tackle position in 25 years. With that in mind, it appears he believes he can get a more than serviceable tackle, guard and/or center with lower-round selections deeper in the draft.

Scary thought, but locking Starks up with the transition tag tips their hand: It looks like they're not going to draft a tackle in the first round. Nor will they draft a guard because Branden Albert, the only guard who justifies a first-round grade, will be gone before the Steelers pick.

Gosder Cherilus (6'7, 315), whom most mock drafts predict will be the Steelers' first-round pick, is a tackle. Some "experts" project him as being able to play guard in the NFL, but if this description from the scouting report on is any indication, he's a tackle – and a tackle only: "limited change-of-direction agility."

All of that's unfortunate because, with Alan Faneca gone, there's a major question mark at left guard, which may or may not be manned by Chris Keomatu, and we really don't know how effective he will be as a fulltime starter. Sean Mahan will be relegated to backup duty at center and guard (actually we hope Mahan will be relegated to "cut," but that's not realistic, given the ridiculous contract the Steelers gave him as a free agent last offseason). Mahan will be a liability no matter where and when he plays.

There's no assurance Justin Hartwig will be much of an improvement at either center or guard. Kendall Simmons isn't getting any younger, or any healthier, and it's long past time to end the Trai Essex experiment. Willy Colon is a bit of a wild card, who may or may not play tackle, guard or center. At backup center, we have no idea whether Darnell Stapleton, last year's undrafted free agent from Rutgers, can play or even merits taking up a spot on the roster.

It's clear the offensive line has become a liability. It needs starting talent, as well as depth.

Right or wrong, it appears the Steelers plan to address those concerns later in the draft.