I Pray For Steelers' Marvel Smith - By John Smathers

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

The pilgrimage to St. Vincent College is ongoing and the minions continue to worship almost daily at the shrine that is Camp Cowher. I haven't been to Steelers training camp yet, but I, too, have felt the power. I put on my black-and-gold prayer jersey every day and talk things over with the greatest Steelers fan of them all.

Marvel SmithNot exactly. But when I think of the immediate and long-term future of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I do say a silent prayer occasionally. I ask the Big Guy to watch Big Ben's back.

It does get me to thinking: Who is the most indispensable player on the team? Ben Roethlisberger, of course, but who is the most important Steeler after Roethlisberger?

You can throw plenty of names out there. For instance, I could argue, and I do, that despite the talk of expanding the passing game, the success of the offense will depend greatly on the team's short-yardage running back and backup to Willie Parker. I believed that player would be Duce Staley, but the coaches are giving Verron Haynes the chance to take the job vacated by Jerome Bettis. The jury is out.

I could make a case for any one of the starting linebackers. With all due respect to James Harrison, I believe they are too thin there and didn't address the position sufficiently in the draft. And who knows, in the event of injury, Harrison could end up being this team's defensive MVP.

Troy Polamalu, the face of the defense, is another candidate, and as valuable as Hines Ward has become, I don't think he qualifies either. This is a really special group of wide receivers. Losing Ward would hurt, but there is a lot of talent and speed there. A lot.

No, the answer lies where it all begins. If Roethlisberger is the team's most important player, it stands to reason that the player charged with protecting him is No. 2. You have to look to the offensive line and the man who must protect Roethlisberger's blind side. Left tackle Marvel Smith is the guy that has Roethlisberger's back, literally. With Roethlisberger apparently more vulnerable to a head injury now than ever before, Smith most certainly becomes the most important Steeler after the quarterback himself.

Try to imagine you've just settled in to watch the Steelers take on the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 7 and on the Steelers' first offensive series, Smith reinjures that ankle that caused him and the Steelers so many problems last year. On the next series, Trai Essex takes over. It's Essex and his relative lack of experience vs. defensive end Jason Taylor, who was tied for third in the AFC last year with 12 sacks. That's a little disconcerting.

I think Essex could be a terrific tackle one day, but now then comes the news on Monday that Essex suffered a groin injury that could seriously impede his progress in camp. Not good. It doesn't make me feel better when veteran backup Barrett Brooks runs into off-field distractions. He's listed as a right tackle anyway, as is rookie Willie Colon, so it's highly unlikely the Steelers would flip Colon to the other side.

Add in there the aforementioned intention to expand the Steelers passing game, meaning probably more attempts for Big Ben. He averaged only 14 per game last year, but with this group of receivers, you know offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt wants to utilize his superstar quarterback even more. If so, the quality of the protection has to remain high.

But it goes beyond the obvious. The Steelers suffered last year without Smith. He missed the Baltimore game in November with a high ankle sprain. Result: Essex took over, dressing for the first time in his career. Defensive end Terrell Suggs got around him on two of the first three plays. The Ravens sacked Tommy Maddox six times (not all on Essex) and Baltimore won, 16-13.

Smith came back the next week against Indianapolis, but left the game early after another ankle injury. Result: Essex vs. Dwight Freeney, who ended up with five sacks against the line's left side, and Indianapolis won, 26-7. Smith was inactive against Cincinnati the next week and again the Steelers lost. Essex started in the Steelers' victory over Chicago and improved each week. Smith finally returned to practice on Tuesday, Dec. 20 and was back in the lineup against Cleveland on Dec. 24. The Steelers were 2-3 without him. The three losses almost blew the team's playoff chances out of the water.

You have to (ahem) Marvel at the Steelers line when it is intact. And cringe when it isn't. When Smith did not play against the Ravens, it was the first time the Steelers had an offensive lineman miss a start since the end of the 2003 season. That's when Smith missed the final four games with a neck/shoulder injury. Remember the 2003 season? Smith, the team's second round pick in the 2000 NFL draft and a selection to the 2005 Pro Bowl, missed 10 games in 2003, forcing the Steelers to move left guard Alan Faneca to left tackle, which prompted even more shuffling on the line. Smith was the linchpin and when he came loose, everything unraveled. The end result: general disarray and a 6-10 record. Even Bill Cowher admitted Smith's injury was probably the biggest reason for the team's dismal record.

It was a rough year for Maddox, but fortunately, he didn't get his head knocked off.

That brings me back to Roethlisberger, who has decided not to wear the more protective Riddell Revolution helmet. So won't you join me in saying a little prayer. Lord, protect our Marvel.