What was already a rather banged-up Steelers' offensive line took a significant turn for the worse with the news that starting left tackle Max Starks will miss the rest of the season with a neck injury. Starks' injury, combined with right tackle Willie Colon's torn Achilles tendon, means that Pittsburgh will play the remainder of the 2010 season with neither of its starting offensive tackles.
Up to now, Pittsburgh has survived the injuries -- every member of the Steelers' front five has limped off the field at some point this season, and Pittsburgh has played nine different offensive linemen this year. Considering all that, the line has played pretty well. After ranking 31st in the league in sacks allowed and 17th in quarterback hits in 2009, Pittsburgh is a middle-of-the-pack unit at 16th in sacks allowed, and an even better ninth in quarterback hits allowed this season.
A lot of that credit goes to the tackles. Halfway through the season, by my count, Starks has allowed only 1 1/2 sacks. Adams has allowed only one sack at right tackle. Pittsburgh has had more problems in the run game, and its guards are rather mediocre, but the line has pass protected better this season than it has in recent years.
But with any team, left tackle is one of the toughest positions to fill in for an injured starter. Philadelphia saw that when King Dunlap stepped in for Jason Peters -- he gave up three sacks in a game against the 49ers. Rashard Butler gave up three sacks in his first two games when he filled in for Duane Brown in Houston.
With that in mind, lets take a look at what the Steelers will likely do to replace Starks:
There already are plenty of rumors floating around about moving Adams back to his "natural" position of left tackle and putting Jonathan Scott at right tackle. But having logged every snap for every Steelers lineman this season, I can't see an advantage in doing that. Because of injuries and conditioning issues for Starks and Adams, Scott has played 136 snaps at tackle for the Steelers already this season (not counting end-of-game kneel-downs). He's played 81 snaps at left tackle and 65 at right tackle. On those plays, he's been successful on 71 of the plays at left tackle (87.7 percent) and 53 of the snaps at right tackle (81.5 percent).
Left tackle is considered the more difficult position for pass blocking, partly because the best pass rusher on most teams lines up at right end or right outside linebacker, and also because a left tackle has fewer plays with a tight end lined up beside him to help chip or force the defensive end to take a wider angle on a speed rush. But in Scott's case, there is no proof that he finds right tackle easier than left tackle. By my count, he's given up four pressures, a 1/2 sack and a holding call while playing right tackle. At left tackle, he's allowed three pressures. And remember, he's played more snaps at left tackle than right.
Considering that this is Adams' first year in the Steelers offense, it would appear to make no sense to shuffle two linemen when Scott is equally prepared to play left and right tackle. The other option as a starter at left tackle -- Tony Hills -- can be discounted because of his disastrous game against the Titans. In his only action of the season, Hills allowed two pressures and one sack in just 25 snaps. He graded out successfully (by my unofficial count) on only 56 percent of his plays.
Scott won't be a Pro Bowler in relief of Starks. But to the surprise of many (including me after watching his play in Buffalo last year), he appears to be serviceable enough that Pittsburgh can survive with him at left tackle. I wouldn't be shocked to see him have a bad game or two over the second half of the season when he faces an unfavorable matchup (like maybe against the Jets), but overall, he's shown improved strength and technique that should allow him to hold his own over the course of a full half of a season.
But there is a deeper problem that Steelers' fans may overlook in worrying about Scott's play as a starter. Pittsburgh has played multiple linemen throughout the first half of the season because of this line's long list of nagging injuries. As I noted, Scott has already played 136 snaps at tackle (as well as a couple at guard). With him now starting, Pittsburgh has no competent backup to Adams. If the Steelers do put Starks on injured reserve, they will likely bring Chris Scott, the team's fifth-round pick this year, off the physically-unable-to-perform list -- and he can play right tackle, but putting a rookie without even any preseason experience into a game would seem foolhardy.
If Adams does need a break, or limps off the field, Pittsburgh would either have to put in Hills at left tackle and slide Scott over, or move Trai Essex outside to tackle. Scott's emergence as a solid third tackle had given Pittsburgh some enviable depth along the offensive line (the difference between the starting guards and backups Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster is also quite small). Now that may be tested.
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