Wexell: Starks Has High Ankle Sprain

Inside the Steel City’s Jim Wexell is reporting on twitter that Max Starks has the dreaded, “high ankle sprain.” Starks is listed “doubtful” for next week, but it is highly unlikely that he will play.

High ankle sprains normally take 4-6 weeks to heal, but in reality, they seem to take a full off season to heal properly, at least for running backs, defensive backs, wide receivers, and linebackers.

Perhaps, given that speed is less of a requirement at left tackle, Starks will be back to 100% more quickly.

Wexell is also reporting that Trai Essex (who seems to have assumed the role of spokesman for the offensive line) predicts that Tony Hills will start.

It during his rookie training camp that Wexell first compared the Steelers 2008 fourth round draft pick to John Jackson, who went from being an unhearlded rookie to anchoring the left side of the Steelers line from 1989 to 1997.

Hills of course has been invisible since then and was a total after thought when Willie Colon got injured in OTA. However, Hills blossomed this summer under the tutelage of new offensive line coach Sean Kugler.

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Steelers Training Camp 2010 “The Good, the Bad, and the Undetermined”

The Steelers have broken camp at Latrobe and finished half of their preseason games with Saturday’s victory over the Giants. Conclusions would be fool hardy at this point, but it is not too early note some positive and negative trends, as well as issues that remain, decidedly undecided.
Gaining Latitude Coming Out of Latrobe

  • The Quarterbacks are Alright

Roethlisberger looks sharp and in shape. Leftwich and Dixon look strong. Perhaps it is a testament that, were it not for questions about his durability, Charlie Batch could beat out a dozen or so back ups on other teams and yet Batch might not make the final cut.

  • Redman Looks Like the Real Deal

Isaac Redman gained the nick name “Redzone Redman” and cult-hero status during the Steelers 2009 preseason. The Steelers cut and resigned Redman to the practice squad and no other NFL team took a shot at him.

A world of difference exists between doing it in preseason and doing it when its real. Redman has given himself a shot at making those other 31 team rue their decision.

  • The Joy of Debating Difficult Decisions

Many sites, including Steel Curtain Rising, questioned the Steelers decision to take 3 linebackers and 2 wide receivers in the 2010 NFL draft.

Jason Worilds will make the team by virtue of his second round status. No one is cutting Pro Bowl berths yet, but Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Thaddeus Gibson, and Stevenson Sylvester figure to provoke furious debates among Steeler coaches as cut down day approaches.

This is a good problem to have.

Invoking St. Vincent’s Intercession

The Steelers went into training camp hoping to solidify their offensive line but, put charitably, a lot of work remains.

  • Motel Six

The decision to sign Flozell Adams was hailed here and parts elsewhere. But either Adams is having difficultly making the transition from left to right tackle, and/or he has nothing left in the tank, and/or he’s mailing because its “just training camp” it in thinking he’s made the team.

None of it bodes well for the Steelers.

  • Kraig Who?

As a third round draft pick in 2009, Kraig Urbik was one player the Steelers entered training camp needing to see progress from for the long-term health of their offensive line. Going into the Steelers first preseason game, Urbik, who was drafted as a guard, was buried on the Steelers depth chart – at center.

That should tell you what you need to know.

  • Dwyer the Dud

When the Steelers OTAs ended Ed Bouchette mentioned that Jonathan Dwyer looked poised to contend for the number two spot at RB. This week Bouchette suggests that Dwyer might not survive the first round of cuts. Not good.

Still Up in the Air

  • No Corner on This Market…

Just a short time ago, Steel Curtain Rising postulated that it would be a very good thing were Bryant McFadden to put a vice-grip lock on the starting corner slot.

Keenan Lewis is apparently giving him a run for his money. Lewis is another player that the Steelers needed develop during training camp. The pros say he’s been so-so, fans rate his performance higher. Regardless, Lewis’ challenge is real, but it remains to be determined whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

  • What Me Worry?

Rashard Mendenhall tripled his rushing average between the first and second preseason game. The problem is he went from 0.4 yards per carry to 1.4 yards per carry.

OK, it is only preseason. OK, those averages are skewed by tackles for losses. He didn’t look good in preseason but then went gang busters as soon as he started. Still, one would expect and there is the issue of fumbles…

  • An Upside to Tony Hills?

A complete after thought when Willie Colon tore his Achilles, Tony Hills summarily written off early in camp. However, word is he “flashed” in two preseason games. Might the Steelers salvage something out of 2008’s fourth round draft pick….?

What Else?

There is more to mention in each category. For the sake of brevity, always in short supply here, Pouncey’s development Sepulvedas’ kickoffs got their own post.

That’s where you come in. Steel Curtain Rising is written out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the sun does not shine on preseason games. So we draw on your analysis and ask you share your opinions.

So please, take a moment to leave a comment, share you thoughts, and join the debate.

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Willie Colon Out for Season, Chris Scott Hurt Too

In The Inferno, Dante describes 9 rings of hell. And with each passing month of what has been a hellish off season, the Steelers seem to descend a level deeper into another ring….

Today an MRI and surgery confirmed the Steelers worst fears: Starting right tackle Willie Colon will miss the entire 2010 season due to an Achilles tendon tear.

None of this took Steelers Nation by surprise, but the news about Colon came with an additional bitter pill. Chris Scott, the Steelers fifth round draft pick in the 2010 NFL draft, broke his foot while working out at the University of Tennessee, and also had surgery.

Scott, who signed his rookie contract less than two weeks ago, may have been a candidate to replace Willie Colon, instead he will miss all of preseason and training camp….

Flozell Adams Among Potential Replacements for Colon

ESPN.com first rumored the story, and the Tribune Review has now confirmed it. The Pittsburgh Steelers have already worked out former Dallas Cowboy starting left tackle.

Adams entered the league in 1998 and has played in five Pro Bowls. The fact that Cowboys let him go rather than pay him a hefty roster bonus, despite the fact that this is an uncapped year, is telling.

But bringing Adams to the Steelers would give them a body, something they need.

Ramon Foster, the standout from the 2009 rookie free agent class, could also be moved to tackle and apparently 2009 third round draft pick Kraig Urbik could also move from guard to tackle.

So apparently the Steelers have some quantity of options to consider. It remains to be seen if that quantity can translate into quality.

No Love for Tony Hills

Yesterday Steel Curtain Rising mentioned potential replacements for Colon, focusing on Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott. Also mentioned was Tony Hills but interestingly, although not surprisingly, Hills name barely, or never, came up in other discussion boards, fan sites and blogs.

During his rookie training camp, Jim Wexell speculated that Tony Hills might bud into another John Jackson. Instead he has not even made himself into an after thought in the collective mind of Steelers Nation when a major injury occurs at his position….

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Willie Colon Injures Achilles Tendon – Worst is Feared

It has been written here before and, if trends continue we will be forced to write it again: Art Rooney II has to be wondering and wish that he can still wake up and find that the Steelers 2010 off season is just some bad dream.

Steelers Nation got another bout of dark news today as the site Scout.com broke the news that starting right tackle Willie Colon injured his Achilles tendon.

The Steelers have confirmed the injury, but are not ready to comment on its severity. However, the Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac is reporting that NFL.com has already announced that Colon has a torn Achilles tendon, and injury that would end his 2010 season.

This is not only the second injury, but the second torn Achilles tendon injury to hit the Steelers in their, to borrow Queen Elizabeth II’s parlance, “offseason horribilis.”

Essex to Fill the Void?

Steel Curtain Rising will reflect on the implications of Colon’s misfortune in greater depth once the full extend of his injury is known. But at this juncture one stark reality stands out:

  • The Steelers have suffered a devastating injury at the position where they are the thinnest.

At least in terms of quantity, if not quality, the Steelers have decent depth at most positions on the roster, but offensive tackle is not one of them.

Behind starters Willie Colon and Max Starks the Steelers have Tony Hills, their 4th round draft pick from 2008 who has yet to dress for, let alone play in, a game, Chris Scott who was their fifth round selection in the 2010 draft, and Jonathan Scott, whom they signed from the Bills in free agency.

Scott, Jonahtan that is, came off the bench to start 8 games for the Bills last year and is said to have serviceable but far from spectacular skills. He now could be a candidate to replace Colon.

The most likely scenario would see Trai Essex moving from right guard to right tackle. Essex has experience playing at tackle, getting work there as early as his rookie year in 2005.

He came off the bench to start at left tackle after injuries felled both Marvel Smith and Max Starks at the end of the 2007 season, and acquitted himself well.

In 2008 he was the first man off of the bench when Smith was lost again against Jacksonville, although the Jaguar defenders threw him aside like a rag doll en route to Ben Roethlisberger. No heads were scratched when Starks started the next game.

Still, if the Steelers could do a lot better than Essex at right tackle, they could probably manage to do worse, for whatever that is worth.

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Steelers 2009 Draft Needs – The Offensive Line

We need to get younger and stronger on both the offensive and defensive lines.” – Mike Tomlin, January 2008

Mike Tomlin issued that semi-solemn declaration at the end of  Steelers 2007 season, and everyone agreed.

Opposing defenders had pummeled Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers had been forced to rely on gadget plays in a critical goal-line situations, and the defense became a shell of its former self after Aaron Smith was lost for the year.

Going into the 2008 draft, everyone knew the Steelers would target lineman of both stripes. Yeah, the Steelers insisted they would “take the best player available,” but Steel Curtain Rising implored readers to ignore this. The Steelers would certainly do what was necessary to bolster the lines.

We were wrong.

Premium lineman came of the board at a furious pace in both the first and second rounds of the 2008 draft, and the Steelers took advantage of that to pick Rashaard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed.

They didn’t pick a linemen until the nabbed Tony Hills in the fourth round, and Pittsburgh went the entire draft without selecting a defensive lineman.

After going through a draft where they seemingly ignored their most urgent needs, the Steelers then promptly went out and won Super Bowl XLIII.

  • That was then, this is now.

Having Lombardi Trophy number six in hand has not changed the simple fact that the Steelers most urgent needs remain offensive and defensive line. (Wide receiver and defensive back are also needs which Steel Curtain Rising will discuss later this week.)

  • The question remains, which line takes higher priority?

Thus far, Steel Curtain Rising’s readers favor the offensive line by almost a 60-40 margin. There are arguments for and against on both sides, which we explore now, starting with the offensive line.

The Case for Favoring the Offensive Line in the 2009 NFL Draft

Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapelton, Willie Colon. Has a more maligned front five ever led its team to a Super Bowl?

Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times, and knocked/taken out of three games. Ben is gifted with ability to make things happen with his feet. But his gift does not alter stark reality too often he’s had no choice but to run for his life.

Going into 2008, one of the line’s supposed saving graces was that for all of the punishment that Roethlisberger took in 2007, the Steelers had a dominate rushing game, and Willie Parker led the NFL in rushing until he got injured in week 16.

The same cannot be said of 2008. Either by injury, line play, or perhaps Arian’s play calling, the rest of the NFL lost its fear of the Steelers once vaunted running game in 2008.

  • How many times did Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, or Gary Russell fail to punch it on the goal line?

The Steelers entered free agency with five lineman becoming free agents. Fortunately, that number will go down next year. They’ll only face the prospect of losing both tackles and their center.

Given all of that, the urgency of focusing on the offensive line above all else should be obvious…. Or is it…?

The Case Against Favoring the Offensive Line in the 2009 NFL Draft

Standing on the dais in Tampa with Lombardi Number Six in his hands, Ben Roethlisberger perhaps said it best:

“Offensive Line, who’s laughing now?”

  • The truth is that the Steelers offensive line still might not scare anybody, but there’s no doubt that they got better as they year wore on.

As number of commentators have pointed out, the Steelers started 2008 with a rebuilt offensive line (new center, new starting guard), and then were forced to rebuild it after decimating injuries in the Baltimore and Jacksonville games.

Max Starks has shown he can play. On lookers will never confuse Chris Kemoeatu with Alan Faneca but the Steelers could do worse. Justin Hartwig was a clear upgrade over Sean Mahan at center. Darnell Stapelton didn’t play poorly for someone who entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent. Willie Colon still hasn’t stopped people from insisting that his natural position is guard, after two years as a starter, Steeler coaches prefer to demure.

The Steelers will also bring back Trai Essex, who can play both guard and tackle. They also have last year’s 4th round pick Tony Hills. Considering that Hills did not get into a game in 2008 it would be folly to expect too much of him, but it’s also foolish to count him out.


Remember this: In 1999 there was another fourth round pick who only saw action in 6 games as a rookie, and had little expected of him heading into his sophomore season. That player blossomed into a starter and a Pro Bowler.

His name is Aaron Smith. Steel Curtain Rising is not predicting that the same will happen with Tony Hills, but stranger things have come to pass.

Steelers Bottom Line in 2009 on the Offensive Line

Up until the final years of the Bill Cowher regime the Steelers seemed to have an unofficial policy to use a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

The last time they picked an offensive lineman in the top three rounds it was Trai Essex in 2005. They must discard this patchwork offensive line building strategy, and they must do so starting with this draft.

But the Steelers do have some depth and some youth going for them on the offensive line. Steel Curtain Rising will take a look at the Steelers defensive line draft needs soon, but for the moment we’ll offer that the same cannot be said for the defensive line.

Comparing what we have on both lines, the offensive line has the greatest potential to grow, and this group of players has already shown they’ll do the work needed to make that happen.

If the Steelers get a shot at a blue chip offensive lineman with one of their premium picks, they should take him. But of the two lines, the offensive line is the less pressing need, if only slightly so.

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Steelers 2009 Free Agent Focus Marvel Smith

Marvel Smith holds the distinction of being Kevin Colbert’s second pick as director of football operations, and the second Steeler to start at right tackle as a rookie. Smith is the only Steeler lineman with Pro Bowl experience, a distinction he earned during the Steelers 2005 Super Bowl season. Smith played so well at right tackle that the Steelers rewarded him with a six-year contract extension in 2003 to play left tackle.

Assessment of Marvel Smith

Smith is the only member of the Steelers offensive line that can lay claim to the moniker of being “Pro Bowl caliber.” When he’s health, of course.

And that is the rub.

During his career, Smith has missed 30 games to injury, although in all fairness, he’s had 4 seasons where he started end-to-end, including playoffs. But Smith finished 2007 on IR with a back injury. Surgery was supposed to make him good as new. And he did look good until the Jacksonville game where he re-injured his back, had surgery again and was lost for the season.

Smith turned down a contract extension from the Steelers during the past off season, in hopes of finding greener pastures of free agency. He made a mistake, and cost himself/saved the Steelers millions in the process.

What the Steelers Should do with Marvel Smith

This is a tough one because you hate to see this happen to a loyal veteran, but the fact is that the Steelers must not commit long-term, guaranteed money to Marvel Smith. He will turn 31 his year, and has missed 16 games due to injury in the past two years. If the Steelers had a viable heir-apparent, perhaps they could resign Smith to a transitional type salary, assuming he’d be willing.

Alas, no heir apparent exists.

In the early going at St. Vincents last summer, fourth round pick Tony Hills drew comparisons to John Jackson (as in confused now, but could be very good later) but in late August it was reported that Hills was endanger of being cut. The fact that the Steelers made no attempt to dress Hills, let alone play him, does not speak volumes of confidence in him. Given such circumstances, and given the affection Steelers management has for Smith, there was a certain fear that sentimentality might kick in, in the form of “give him another shot.”

Most Likely Scenario for the Steelers and Marvel Smith

The decision to name Max Starks as the Steelers franchise player erases any doubt that the Steelers are sentimental about Marvel Smith. In talking about the move with Starks, Kevin Colbert stopped short of declaring this as an either or situation, but was quite clear that no long term deal for Marvel Smith is in the offing.

Smith, however, could wind up back with the Steelers. Given his age and injury history, it is hard to see the other 31 teams rushing to offer Marvel Smith lucurative, long-term contracts. (Then again, teams willing to overpay an offensive tackle have never been in short supply. John Jackson’s contract with the San Diego Chargers after the 1998 season rings a bell….) If Smith gets no takers on the free agent market, he could decide to return to Pittsburgh in a back up role.

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Tony Hills the Next John Jackson?

Tony Hills’ name has surfaced infrequently during training camp, but when it has it is most frequently paired with John Jackson.

Tony Hills played tackle for UCLA before the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round of this spring’s draft. John Jackson was of course a tenth round pick out of Eastern Kentucky in 1988.

There was little consensus surrounding Hills when he was drafted. Some writers suggested he’d have gone higher if it were not for an injury, others questioned his toughness.

Writing in the Steelers Digest, Jim Wexell first compared the two players, remarking, “Tony Hills looks like John Jackson. He’s raw but he has a great build, long arms, and quick feet.”

  • The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Scotty Brown was less generous, declaring Hills as “a major project.”

Most recently this week the Tribune-Review’s Mike Prisuta offered that he couldn’t figure out of Tony Hills was the next John Jackson, or the next Fred Gibson — the last 4th round pick who failed to make the team.

A tenth round pick is by definition a long-shot to make the team. John Jackson had a difficult time in preseason, getting runover left and right by a young Pat Swelling in the Super Dome in the final preseason contest of 1988.

Yet Jackson made the team, and he grew into a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle. (In fact, Jackson became the highest paid lineman in football when he left via free agency in 1998 — He was grossly overpaid, but it did take the Steelers two full years to recover from losing him.)

So the Steeler press corps might be unable to make up their minds, but you’ve very well may have made up yours. What do you think?

Does Hills have long-term potential or was he a reach? Sound off in the comments section.

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Steelers 2008 Draft: Pittsburgh Stockpiles Potential at Important, If Less Critical Need Areas

At 2008 off season’s outset Steelers coach Mike Tomlin reaffirmed his commitment to attrition football – in other words to fighting and winning games in the trenches. To that end he, declared Steelers “need to get bigger and younger on both lines.” The Steelers then proceeded pick a single lineman in the 2008 NFL draft, Texas offensive tackle Tony Hills….

The Rolling Stones once opined that while you can’t always get what you want, you sometimes you get what you need. More recently Cold Play warned that those who got what they wanted but not what they needed would require fixing….

  • The dust from the 2008 NFL draft has settled, but the question remains, did the Steelers get what they wanted or what they needed?

The answer is that what the Steelers got in the draft, they needed.

Prior to the draft, Steel Curtain Rising was firmly on the record in support of drafting a offensive lineman. Yet we’ve also endorsed Tomlin and Colbert’s “draft the best man available” philosophy.

The Steelers followed their philosophy to the letter, and in the long run, that should reveal itself as a positive. Pro Football Weekly’s five year analysis of the Steelers draft record largely coincided with the analysis presented here in the Colbert Record. Namely that the Steelers success on day one of the draft has not carried over to day two. Pro Football Weekly concluded that this tendency has hurt the Steelers special teams play and their overall depth.

This conclusion is sound, and its one reason why reason to praise Colbert and Tomlin’s decision making, in spite of the team’s failure to land a blue-chip lineman.

All things being equal, the Steelers probably would have drafted a lineman early, but as fate would have it, drafting a lineman in the 1st or 2nd would have constituted a major reach. Reaching to fill a need in the draft is dangerous, remember Troy Edwards?

  • The Steelers 2008 draft score card is made up of a running back, a wide out, two outside linebackers, an offensive lineman, a quarterback and a safety.

The Steelers field Pro Bowl caliber talent at running back, wide out, and at outside linebacker. Yet at each of these slots, their depth is critically thin.

When Willie Parker went down, we learned why Najeh Davenport is and will be a career back up. Carey Davis and Gary Russell’s potential is just that, potential.

At wide receiver Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are backed up by a solid Nate Washington and the hope that Dallas Baker and Willie Reid will show something they’ve failed to show thus far.

At outside linebacker, James Harrison has established himself as a force, and LaMarr Woodley came on very strong in late 2007. But the cupboard is very, very bare once you look beyond these two players.

Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Mike Humpal have proven nothing at this level. The odds are against all four blossoming in the NFL, but their presence certainly strengthens the Steelers foundation in three key areas.

Quarterback is a little different. Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch give the Steelers the best 1-2 tandem in the league and if, God forbid, disaster were to strike both men, no one would say “If only Brian St. Pierre were still here…..”

Given this reality, Steel Curtain Rising whole heartedly concurred with Steelers Digest’s Bob Labrolia that “using [a pick] on a guy who would only be competing for the No. 3 spot would be a waste.”

With that said, Dennis Dixon is a player that would have gone on day one had he not been hurt. The Steelers have the luxury of letting him heal and develop. Time will tell if the Steelers can groom him into a number two, but if they do he will prove to be a wise selection.

The bottom line is, if Steelers determined the lineman who were on the board in the fifth would be unlikely to make the team in September, they were right to pick a high value player.

The Steelers did net offensive tackle Tony Hills in the draft. Even if Hills proves to be tougher than the pundits think him to be, the Steelers lines remain a major area of concern.

But the simple fact is that quality lineman were not available when the Steelers had to pick. Instead of panicking or allowing themselves to be victims of circumstance, they gave themselves a chance to strengthen other, if less urgent, need areas.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 Draft Class Is Complete

The Steelers closed the 2008 NFL Draft by picking up five more players, including one rather perplexing selection in the fifth round. The Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 draft class is:

1 Rashard Mendenhall, RB, ILLINOIS
2 Limas Sweed, WR, TEXAS
3 Bruce Davis, OLB, UCLA
4 Tony Hills, OT, TEXAS
5 Dennis Dixon, QB, OREGON
6 Mike Humpal, OLB, IOWA
6 Ryan Mundy, Safety, WEST VIRGINIA

The Steelers focused on the skill positions during day one of the 2008 draft, netting what most analysts concluded were steals in both the first and second rounds. Both Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed have the potential to bolster areas which are solid, but also in need of reinforcement and depth.

The Steelers picked three defensive players, and two more offensive ones on day two of the 2008 draft. Again the shored up their outside line backing corps, an area that features two solid starters (if Woodley’s play in 2007 is any indication) but little depth. They also picked up a safety, perhaps looking to add some depth in the face of Ryan Clark’s injury recovery and Anthony Smith’s erratic play.

  • They also grabbed an offensive tackle Tony Hills in the fourth round, which we will discuss in a later post.

The most perplexing pick is that of Dennis Dixon in the fifth round. The fact that the Steelers took the time to work out Dixon prior to the draft was eyebrow raising. The fact that they picked him is even more surprising. The Steelers have probably the best QB/back up combo in the league with Big Ben and Charlie Batch. Taxi QB’s can be found on the cheap after the draft, or by picking up street free agents.

Perhaps Mike Tomlin wants to go with the old, Joe Gibbs model – Established starter, veteran back up, up and comer. A very viable model – but given the team’s failure to address the defensive line, Steel Curtain Rising has to question the use of a pick on a quarterback.

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