There could be as many as three Steelers starting offensive linemen listed as questionable on Friday. If you're giving a fair assessment after three games, the play of the entire Pittsburgh offensive line has been questionable, with or without injuries.
The biggest obstacle to the Steelers winning a fourth AFC North title in five years is the Ravens. The next one are those five guys lining up in front of Ben Roethlisberger.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall won't pop many big runs if the offensive line fails to open holes. Roethlisberger won't have the time to find speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace down the field if the line struggles to protect him.
The times when the offense doesn't click can be traced back to the offensive line. It's the main reason why the Steelers rank 26th in the NFL in scoring, averaging 18 points per game.
"The offensive line is definitely the weak link," Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said. "They really just don’t have very good football players there."
One could argue that the Steelers have been dealing with offensive line problems for years, even the seasons when they went to the Super Bowl. This line is on pace for its sixth straight season of allowing at least 43 sacks.
So, Pittsburgh should be used to covering up for its offensive line and it's no big deal. Wrong.
This season is different, and anyone who has watched the past two games knows it. Two weeks ago, Roethlisberger was writhing in pain on Heinz Field because apparently right tackle Marcus Gilbert tripped Seattle's Raheem Brock, who dove into the quarterback's lower leg, instead of blocking him. Last Sunday, Roethlisberger fumbled twice (one of which led to a touchdown return) after getting stripped by the Colts' Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who had beaten Pittsburgh's offensive tackles.
The ineffectiveness of the offensive line is starting to effect the health of Roethlisberger and impact the scoreboard. You can only imagine what Texans pass-rushers Mario Williams and J.J. Watt were thinking when they watched the Steelers blockers on national television.
"Pittsburgh built an offensive line full of bigger, heavier guys and they still can't make space in the running game, which is a huge problem," Williamson said. "The protection is also terrible though the Steelers did a poor job of helping their poor offensive tackles in protection against Mathis and Freeney, which I don't understand at all."
Steeler Nation began scratching their heads watching the team construct the offensive line. After cutting Flozell Adams and Max Starks at the end of July, Pittsburgh was left with a patchwork group. The only starters from last Sunday with any pedigree are center Maurkice Pouncey, the 18th overall pick in 2010, and Gilbert, a rookie second-round pick.
The others included a former fifth-round pick who never became a full-time starter in Detroit or Buffalo (left tackle Jonathan Scott); a sixth-round pick from 2005 (left guard Chris Kemoeatu) and an undrafted rookie free agent in 2008 (right guard Doug Legursky).
Not investing more money and high draft picks into the offensive line could explain why the Steelers have the 23rd-ranked rushing attack and have allowed eighth-most sacks this season.
"We were not perfect by any stretch," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're very much a team in development."
The most interesting decision was going with Scott to protect Roethlisberger's blind side. Every other team has addressed the most important spot on the offensive line, from Cleveland's Joe Thomas to Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth to Baltimore's Bryant McKinnie. The Steelers, meanwhile, stuck with Scott, who had previously started 14 games in four seasons with the Lions and Bills.
"I was shocked that they settled for Scott at left tackle," Williamson said. "But I guess the logic was that 'Hey, we went to the Super Bowl with him there [so] let’s try it again.' And we do need to remember that left tackles don’t grow on trees. When you pick late in the draft every year like the Steelers do, that is a very difficult position to address. Just ask the Colts."
The Steelers' problems have been compounded by injuries, which surfaced immediately this season. Right tackle Willie Colon, who was the team's best lineman, was lost for the year after tearing his triceps in the season opener.
Injuries continued to hinder the line in Week 2 (Kemoeatu was sidelined) and leading up to the Week 3 game (Pouncey was limited in practice with a hamstring injury). Then, on Sunday, three starters (Scott, Legursky and Gilbert) all left the game in Indianapolis with injuries. Legursky was seen later on the sideline with his left arm in a sling while Scott was walking around on crutches.
Scott and Legursky are considered questionable, and Gilbert will attempt to practice this week. But it doesn't appear as if Adams or Starks are making a return anytime soon.
"Make no mistake, we intend to prepare with the men that we have here," Tomlin said. "Those will be the guys that will help us win this football game. Anyone we add will be simply for the purposes of practice or numbers."
There doesn't appear to be an easy solution.
"At this point, I don’t know what to do to fix it," Williamson said. "I do think [Ramon] Foster is their best guard and for some reason, they don’t start him. Gilbert also is bound to improve with more reps. Overall though, it can’t get much worse."