By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line has been a point of contention for several years now, as franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been knocked down more than nearly every other signal-caller in the NFL.
The Steelers running game also has not been rated among the league’s best in several years as well, and improving that area is nearly as important as keeping Roethlisberger upright.
In an attempt to improve their offensive line quality and depth, the Steelers have selected several O-linemen in the NFL Draft in recent years, including the No. 1 spot this year. And Maurkice Pouncy, the 18th overall pick last week, should compete for the starting right guard spot as a rookie.
“He’s that good,” Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. “It was pretty evident early on when we started to evaluate this kid. Again, as a junior, we got on with the process late with him.
“It was evident early on that this was someone who was going to be interesting to us, where we were going to be picking. And really, there was no pre-determined position, anything like that. It was just that he was that good.”
The Steelers also drafted Chris Scott from Tennessee, a tackle in college who also will play guard in the NFL. The club brought in fourth-year tackle Jonathan Scott during free agency and signed three undrafted rookies as well: guard Dorian Brooks from James Madison, tackle Kyle Jolly from North Carolina and center-guard A.J. Trump from Miami, Fla.
“(Chris Scott) is a physical player,” Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler said. We feel he’s got some position flexibility. We feel he’s the type that could play guard for us as well, which is real important. And he played at a high level of competition each week in the SEC and did a nice job versus those guys.
“(And) I think Jonathan’s role will be very similar to what it was in Buffalo. He started some games at left tackle. He also started some games at right tackle. He had the same history when he was in Detroit. (So), being able to play both and be efficient at both gives him a good chance (with the Steelers).”
The Steelers return all five starting offensive linemen with Max Starks at left tackle, Chris Kemoeatu at left guard, Justin Hartwig at center, Trai Essex at right guard and Willie Colon at right tackle. Essex took over when Super Bowl starter Darnell Stapleton suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp.
The Steelers also have third-year tackle Tony Hills, second-year center Doug Legursky, second-year tackle Ramon Foster, second-year guard Kraig Urbik and rookie center Bradley Vierling on the roster in backup roles. Kugler addressed the club’s offensive line.
“I think there’s chemistry in that room, and that’s always a good start because that’s a big part of offensive line,” Kugler said. “We’re just going to work every day to get better and improve daily, and that’s our goal. We’re not going to look forward to the week ahead or the month ahead. It’s going to be day to day and make daily improvements, and in the long run I think that will pay off.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believed that being able to play multiple positions was crucial, as Pouncey, Urbik and Essex battle for depth-chart spots.
“(Pouncey) will be provided an opportunity to compete,” Tomlin said. “Those other guys (Essex and Urbik), of course, have position flexibility. And our goal, of course, is to put the best five on the field and back them up with flexible men. Some of the guys have shown that flexibility already.”
Pouncey could eventually win a starting role this season, as a replacement for Essex, but it would be a surprise if players like Hills, Urbik or any other young guy made an impact. Hills and Urbik, in particular, need to take their game to the next level for that to happen. Both appeared to be pretty soft to this point.
Veteran Jonathan Scott also will be given an opportunity. He could push Colon at right tackle, and if Scott wins that spot then Colon could move to guard. But it also wouldn’t be surprising if the O-line remained the same this season. Still, competition can’t be a bad thing for the future.
Here are the offensive linemen on the Steelers roster:
77 Dorian Brooks OG 6-2 306 23 R James Madison
74 Willie Colon T 6-3 315 27 5 Hofstra
79 Trai Essex G 6-5 324 27 6 Northwestern
73 Ramon Foster T 6-6 325 24 2 Tennessee
62 Justin Hartwig C 6-5 312 31 9 Kansas
66 Tony Hills T 6-5 304 25 3 Texas
67 Kyle Jolly OT 6-6 300 22 R North Carolina
68 Chris Kemoeatu G 6-3 344 27 6 Utah
64 Doug Legursky C 6-1 315 23 2 Marshall
XX Maurkice Pouncey C/G 6-4 304 20 R Florida
71 Chris Scott OT 6-4 319 22 R Tennessee
72 Jonathan Scott T 6-6 318 27 4 Texas
78 Max Starks T 6-8 345 28 7 Florida
69 A.J. Trump C/G 6-3 300 23 R Miami
65 Kraig Urbik G 6-5 323 24 2 Wisconsin
XX Bradley Vierling C 6-3 290 23 R Vanderbilt