No football phrase is more widely accepted and time-honored: It all starts up front.
Yeah, it does; still does. Look at those holes the Steelers offensive line was gashing in the Eagles defense Sunday. The Steelers running backs, at times, had to turn their heads to the right or left to find the nearest defender.
But isn't that the same Steelers offensive line that produced one of the worst rushing seasons in Steelers history last year? Isn't that the same Steelers offensive line that allowed 42 sacks?
Well, actually, it's not the same offensive line. This one is without Kendall Simmons, who happens to be the Steelers' second-best offensive lineman.
When the season began, the Steelers' number one concern was their offensive line. That's right, the same offensive line that has produced 473 yards rushing in consecutive wins over New England and Philadelphia; the same offensive line that has permitted just 13 sacks through half a season.
All right, so what's changed? The offensive line coach? No.
What's changed is the quarterback and the running back. Ben Roethlisberger and Duce Staley are the new guys in the offense. They've made the difference.
So, it really doesn't start up front, does it? In this case, it all starts in the back, right?
Well, no, that's not the message. It still all starts up front, but it doesn't matter what you do up front if you don't have playmakers in the back who can take advantage of what's happening up front.
A year ago, Tommy Maddox was the Steelers' starting quarterback. His was a heart-warming comeback story and when Maddox was on his game he could pass up a storm. But he threw far too many interceptions and committed far too many fumbles, and he was a blitz bag because he didn't have a running game to keep defenses honest.
The same Jerome Bettis who rushed for 149 yards against the Eagles on Sunday looked old and slow last season, which is how a running back with a lot of miles on him looks when he has tired legs. Against the Eagles on Sunday, Bettis' legs were rested and ready to go. He looked young and quick. That's what Staley's presence has produced; a Bettis who can play a key backup role.
Two players can make that kind of difference for a team that, otherwise, has made no other significant changes. The Steelers have the same offensive line, the same defensive line, the same linebackers, the same wide receivers and the same defensive backs, but everybody looks better because of two guys.
The parity in this league is such that a player here and a player there can make the difference. We heard James Harris talk about finding playmakers during last offseason, and we'll hear him talk about it again in the upcoming offseason. Yeah, it all starts up front, but you gotta have playmakers, especially in today's wide-open, up-tempo game.
Two guys would make all the difference for the Jaguars, too. They need a pass-rusher and they need a cover-corner. They will be positions of intense focus during the offseason. They could do for the Jaguars what Roethlisberger and Staley have done for the Steelers.