“Who’s laughing now, O-line?” Roethlisberger proudly exclaimed two years ago.
Big Ben has kept a tight relationship with his linemen over the years, even though the unit was maligned during the 2008 season. There have been similar whispers throughout this season, but here Pittsburgh is again, preparing to play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
Only one starter will be the same from that win over Arizona two years ago. Both starting tackles have gone down this season and guys with a combined three starts have locked down center and right guard. Still, the Steelers‘ linemen are laughing all the way to Cowboys Stadium.
“Just the way this group’s all come together and bought into our philosophy since the beginning of training camp, it’s nice to now see all that hard work pay off,” said Max Starks, who began the season at left tackle but sustained a season-ending neck injury Nov. 8.
Maurkice Pouncey entered the season with credentials as a first-round pick out of Florida, but was only a rookie. At right guard, Ramon Foster took over at midseason after being an undrafted free agent in 2009 with only three previous starts as an injury replacement.
Inactive for four of the season’s first eight games, Foster beat out Trai Essex on the depth chart after Essex _ an off-and-on starter at guard and tackle over his six years with the Steelers _ was benched.
Signed as a free agent over the offseason from Buffalo, Jonathan Scott started the final eight games at left tackle. Veteran Flozell Adams was signed on the eve of training camp, and the 13-year veteran has been one of the few constants after having been plugged in at right tackle.
Left guard Chris Kemoeatu is the only leftover from the ‘08 team. He started 15 games this season, missing one with a knee injury.
Throw in a new offensive line coach this season in Sean Kugler after Larry Zierlein was let go, only added to the constant state of change.
“It seems like we’ve had significant change on the offensive line every time we’ve been to the Super Bowl,” Starks said. “I wouldn’t say that this season was the wildest ride of them all, but I’d say it’s been the most exciting.”
Maybe that’s because the group overcame so much to help Pittsburgh get this far. The Steelers ranked 12th in the NFL in total offense _ in the top half of both rushing and passing offense _ and 11th in the league in yards per play (5.6).
This despite the fact that only one player made it through the season as the starter who also started the prior season. Three players started at times at right guard and two each at left guard and left tackle. Essex, Foster and Doug Legursky have seen action at multiple positions _ sometimes over the course of the same game.
“All of us have the same principles and the same philosophy,” Starks said. “The biggest thing is no matter who you plug in, as long as your guys are consistent to the philosophy of our offense, any running back can be successful.”
He’s one of the top quarterbacks in the league at eluding pass rushers, breaking out of potential sacks and extending plays.
That can help hide the ills of sub-par line play.
“He’s a fighter, and that type of tenacity from an offensive line standpoint, he kind of embodies that as well as a quarterback,” Scott said. “You’ll definitely go out there and lay your body out for him.”
The Steelers might face their biggest challenge in terms of offensive line continuity at the Super Bowl, with the status of the unit’s lone Pro Bowler in doubt. Pouncey left the AFC championship game during the opening drive with a sprained left ankle.
Pouncey did not practice all last week and was spotted at the team’s practice facility with a cast on. Although he is listed as questionable, there is a possibility that he’ll miss the game.
If he doesn’t, Legursky _ undrafted in 2008 _ will make his first career start at center during the Super Bowl. Legursky has played elsewhere on the line during his brief career, plus stints at tight end and at fullback. But his lone experience as a starter is a four-game stint early this season at right guard.
“We have a lot of confidence in Doug Legursky,” Foster said. “He’s one of those guys who’s very smart. He prepares just like Maurkice does during the week, so there was no nervousness going on as far as when he came in there.”
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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