Steelers offensive line remains unsettled as season approaches

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers go into their final two exhibition games still sorting out what normally are the most settled positions on their team -- those on the offensive line.

They have the NFL's most accomplished left guard in five-time All-Pro Alan Faneca, plus two longtime starters in left tackle Marvel Smith and right guard Kendall Simmons. They also have a right tackle, Max Starks, who was good enough to win the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter.

But if the season were to start right now -- and the Steelers are thankful it doesn't until Sept. 9 -- Starks wouldn't be the right tackle, but second-year pro Willie Colon would. There's also no proven backup behind Smith, and one of the team's top-paid linemen, Chukky Okobi, is playing behind Sean Mahan at center.

There's also this problem to consider: Faneca is so unhappy with his contract situation that he has promised this is his last season in Pittsburgh. Right now, the Steelers don't even want to think about where they might be without Faneca, their best lineman since center Dermontti Dawson was a Pro Bowl regular for about a decade.

And while the schedule suggests the Steelers have two more games to sort this all out, coach Mike Tomlin plans to use his regulars minimally Aug. 30 at Carolina. The last significant playing time they will get will be Sunday night against Philadelphia at Heinz Field.

"Obviously, you want to be out there and growing rapport with these guys, but that's not my call," Colon said Monday. "I just try to go out there and be efficient and try to play hard and play to the wire."

New line coach Larry Zierlein wants to settle all this, too, but not much got decided Saturday night in a 12-10 victory against Washington in which the third- and fourth-team players got most of the points.

The first-string offense managed a field goal in one half of play, the running game averaged only 3.2 yards and Willie Parker was held to four yards on four carries.

Parker could be excused for being behind, as he missed practice for two weeks with a knee injury, but he clearly lacked running room.

"We're trying a lot of different combinations out there," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "Are we where we want to be? No, we've still got a long way to go. We're mixing and matching a lot of different personnel so things aren't going to look as good as they ought to be."

Part of the problem is that the personnel situation remains unsettled across nearly the entire offensive line:

» Starks and former third-round draft pick Trai Essex have struggled at left tackle, leaving Smith with no reliable backup. On one play Saturday, Essex stumbled, was called for tripping and allowed a sack.

» With Starks spending so much time at left tackle, he appears to have fallen behind Colon at right tackle.

» Chris Kemoeatu has been unable to move up the depth chart to push any of the offensive line regulars.

» Smith's back spasms kept him out of the Redskins game, so Zierlein couldn't have settled on a starting group and played them together even if he wanted to do that.

When will the offensive line be stabilized? Nobody's guessing.

"Only the head man (Tomlin) and the o-line coach know that," Simmons said. "The thing about it is you're not doing stuff like you normally would do. You're not really game-planning, so you're not trying to exploit any weaknesses. You just got to let guys play and see what they can do. Everything will get smoothed out the closer we get to the season."

The Steelers can only hope so.

"Cohesion is key," Starks said. "It is essential to every successful offense. The longer a team can play together, the more comfortable they get with each other. I think it's very important (to start playing together). The more time these guys play together, the more time there is to build and understand each other."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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