A Line On What Went Wrong

Sean Kugler teaches (Gojkovich/Getty Images)

With all due respect to "the standard is the standard" and the next-man-up theory, there is a saturation point associated with injuries, writes Mike Prisuta.

The Steelers reached that point in 2012, which helps explain why the '12 season won't be spilling over into 2013.

To full appreciate what they've been through, we need to rewind to the night of April 27.

The second day of the draft had just been completed, and I was told by a staff member at the Steelers' facility that I shouldn't be surprised if the starting offensive line wound up consisting of, from left to right, Mike Adams, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon and Marcus Gilbert.

I was so intrigued I tweeted it (@DVEMike).

We learned soon thereafter that Colon would be playing left guard rather than right, but that still left the right guard spot for the No. 1 pick.

Then Adams got hurt in training camp, but Max Starks was also back in the picture by then, and a Starks-Colon-Pouncey-DeCastro-Gilbert starting five remained a line of great potential and intrigue.

Then DeCastro went down in Buffalo and … well, you know the rest.

By the time the Steelers lined up for their win-or-else game against the Bengals last Sunday, they were working with a Starks-Ramon Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro-Kelvin Beachum fivesome up front.

DeCastro was making his second start and Beachum his fourth.

That was a line that had debuted the previous Sunday at Dallas.

Upon doing so it had become the Steelers' seventh different offensive line combination of the season.

And that's just too many.

For perspective on that consider that number of offensive lines the teams in the playoff money entering the regular season's final weekend have employed:

AFC – Houston (three), Denver (three), New England (five), Baltimore (four), Indianapolis (six), Cincinnati (four).

NFC – Atlanta (two), Green Bay (four), San Francisco (one), Washington (two), Seattle (six), Minnesota (one).

Think Adrian Peterson has all of those yards on his own personal brilliance?

A factor there is the Vikings have been able to line up, left to right, Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan, Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt in the same spots every game this season.

The Steelers had such a plan in mind entering the draft.

It didn't work out as planned.

And in the end, what we saw against Cincinnati in the game that sealed the Steelers' fate was a patchwork offensive line get dominated by a very good front seven.

"They didn't bring anything new," Starks had explained in the immediate aftermath of the Bengals game. "They just delayed shifting a lot more than they had in the past. You'd get halfway through the cadence and they're shifting and you're having to re-ID.

"It was a little problematic. It was a good ploy on their defense."

Especially against an offensive line that had been together for a couple of weeks rather than a couple of months.

In years past, Ben Roethlisberger had been able to work around offensive line issues. Not this time, not after he returned from injury after having missed three starts. Not with the running game un-established, and not with the wide receivers for the most part underachieving, and not late in games against the Cowboys and the Bengals that were there for the taking until the protection broke down at precisely the wrong time.

The bad news is the Steelers are losing offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who has been essential in getting the most that could be gleaned from offensive lines under much less than ideal circumstances in recent seasons.

The good news is enough pieces are already in place – Adams, Pouncey, DeCastro, Gilbert and maybe even Beachum – that this season's plan may yet pan out as anticipated next season.

Better late than never.

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