Labriola on preseason game No. 2

LANDOVER, Md. – It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not with this group, not with this scheme, not after the investment they made by spending two No. 1 picks and two No. 2 picks over a three-year span from 2010-12.

The Steelers have endured some bad offensive line play over the previous few seasons, but the first quarter and a half last night against the Washington Redskins was right up there with the worst.

Quite a contention, what with the subject being a unit that has allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked 198 times in his last 71 regular season starts, a unit that endured so many injuries in recent seasons that not only did players have to switch positions series-to-series but also from play-to-play within a series.

All of that was supposed to be over, what with this current group of five consisting of No. 1 picks Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, No. 2 picks Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, and veteran Ramon Foster, a rarity among Steelers offensive linemen in that he was able to start all 16 games a season ago.

But so far during this preseason, the No.1 offensive line has been more of a problem than a solution.

Against the New York Giants, the first-team offensive line allowed a sack and was flagged for one holding penalty. Against the Redskins, the line allowed two sacks, one of which was a sack/strip of Bruce Gradkowski, and it was flagged for four penalties in the game's opening 17 minutes.

Two of those penalties nullified third-down conversions, and another nullified a conversion on a second down. As a result, in the first half the Steelers offense was 0-fer in two significant statistical categories: third-down conversions and red zone efficiency.

Forty-eight hours before the preseason opener against the Giants, Coach Mike Tomlin was asked if he thought this group of five starting offensive linemen could be the best of his seven-year tenure as coach of the Steelers.

"I think it has the makings of it, not only because of the pedigree but because of the youth and the upside of the men," said Tomlin. "I've always been one to believe that room for growth is vitally important and creates great optimism. We have a lot of guys who fall into that category."

But in the first two preseason games, the offensive line has been a weakness, and the performance actually worsened from last week to this week. The running game has shown some flashes, but the pass protection has been inconsistent and spotty. And again – in maybe one half of football over two weeks – there have been three holding penalties, one illegal use of the hands penalty, and one illegal formation penalty for not lining up on the line of scrimmage.

"It is poor execution," said Tomlin after the Redskins game about the penalties. "I just told the guys we are not going to provide lip service. We have to practice how we intend to play. We may have an official or two at our practice next week to help us in that regard."

Might be worth a try, because the performance of the offensive line hasn't been good enough so far this preseason, and it hasn't been getting better, either.

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