By Matthew Marczi
All five starters along the offensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 earned starting experience in 2012. However, only one of them started more than six games at his position, that being center Maurkice Pouncey.
Ramon Foster started every game last season, as previously discussed; however, 13 of his starts came on the right side, and he is being shifted to the left this year. In fact, only eight of his 42 career starts have come from the left side.
Between second-year players David DeCastro and Mike Adams are a combined nine career starts. Marcus Gilbert does have 18 starts over the last two seasons; however, only five of them came last year, and all of them came at right tackle.
On the other hand, Gilbert did finish with a very impressive 96.1 pass blocking efficiency rating in 2011, which was good for thirteenth best among tackles in the league, and tops among rookies, just edging out Tyron Smith. In addition, if you eliminate players with less than 250 snaps, that bumps Gilbert into the top ten.
Despite the admirable rating, he did allow seven sacks as a rookie. Curiously, he was somewhat less efficient in giving up pressure in 2012, but he did not forfeit a sack.
In 2013, Gilbert is expected to slide over to the left side and replace departing veteran Max Starks, who has been the primary body manning the left tackle spot over the past five seasons. While Starks is a solid veteran, he was certainly never a Pro Bowler at the position.
According to Pro Football Focus, Starks was ranked 47th among offensive tackles in pass blocking efficiency in 2012. Unlike Gilbert, Starks played every snap of the season, so his numbers should be fairly representative of his performance during last year.
Starks’ strength, most certainly, was never in the running game. While he is more than capable of engaging in one on one blocks, one can often find him putting in a bare minimum effort. This is perhaps largely due to the amount of running plays away from the left side; however, one can also argue that the scarcity of running plays to the left side is partially attributed to the quality of run blocking in that direction.
Gilbert, too, is more geared toward pass protection than run blocking; however, he has shown some success in the run blocking department, primarily in 2011. On the other hand, it must be noted that the team had by far its greatest success running the ball after Gilbert got injured, during a six-game stretch with Adams at right tackle.
One advantage that should help Gilbert transition from the right side of the line to the left is that Foster is moving from the right to the left as well. Foster was the starting right guard in nearly all of Gilbert’s starts at right tackle, and they have shown some chemistry together in the past.
While it was near universally agreed upon that Starks should be re-signed as, at worst, the swing tackle, and perhaps even be given a chance to retain his starting spot, there was one damning factor that played against him, and that was the hiring of Jack Bicknell, Jr. as the new offensive line coach.
With Bicknell comes a new offensive repertoire that emphasizes placing its offensive linemen on the move, which is perhaps the weakest element in Starks’ game. At 6’8” and 350 pounds, Starks is not the most nimble of men, especially considering he is already 31 years old. He has historically struggled out in space, and would potentially limit what the Steelers would be able to do in a zone blocking scheme.
On the other hand, Gilbert actually has fairly nimble feet for a man of his stature. In fact, during his time with the Florida Gators, Gilbert started at every position along the offensive line but center.
While it remains to be seen what Gilbert can do on the left side for a prolonged period of time on a professional level, the fact that he has experience there and has handled himself well in the preseason bodes well for a relatively smooth transition for the third-year pro. Despite Ben Roethlisberger’s great friendship and comfort level with Starks, Gilbert should ‘have his back’, at least on the field, just as well as Starks did last year, if not better.