- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | Including the preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play their 23rd game of the season Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Yet the offensive line remains a work in progress?

“It’s just that,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve had some turnover on the offensive line here in the last few years. We don’t run away from it. The standard of expectation doesn’t change for us. Along the way, we’ve had to find ways to win football games.”

The Steelers’ offensive line has been under scrutiny because Ben Roethlisberger absorbed 51 sacks in the regular season and playoffs. Partly because the 6-foot-5, 241-pound quarterback hangs in the pocket long after the protection breaks down and the Steelers’ line has been decimated with changes, the players still are getting used to each other - even though they opened camp in late July.

Center Justin Hartwig signed to replace the retired Sean Mahan.

Left guard Chris Kemoeatu was promoted when Alan Faneca signed with the New York Jets.

Right guard Darnell Stapleton replaced an injured Kendall Simmons in Week 4.

Left tackle Max Starks took over for an injured Marvel Smith in Week 7.

Only right tackle Willie Colon is in the same spot he was at the end of last year.

The changes have put the Steelers in a constant state of flux. Just when Kemoeatu gets comfortable, he has to work with a new tackle. Just when Hartwig gets accustomed to the people he’s communicating with, another new player joins the huddle.

“We’ve had some difficult situations this year,” Starks said. “Anytime you lose key veterans, most teams would say they’re preparing for the next season, but the good thing about our team is we have great depth.”

Only San Francisco (55), Detroit (52) and Cincinnati (51) allowed more sacks than the 49 the Steelers surrendered in the regular season. The tumult up front, along with Roethlisberger’s development, produced a shift in the Steelers’ playcalling.

In Roethlisberger’s first two seasons (2004 and 2005), the Steelers ran 430 more times than they passed. In the past three years, the Steelers have 169 more pass attempts.

“We’ve always going to be looked at as a run-first team,” Starks said. “We’ve changed that dimension this year by being a very pass-oriented team.”

A byproduct is that the sacks have increased - Roethlisberger has been sacked more than any quarterback (104 times) since 2004.

“As a unit, we’ve been through so much, from injuries to our unit getting bashed week in and week out, no matter how good or bad we played,” Colon said. “All that fire, we took it to motivate us to get better.”

Said Kemoeatu: “We have a lot of new guys on the line and a lot of people try to critique us and try to tell us how to do this and that, but we’re always up for the challenge. We have to be able to take that criticism, but we don’t let it bother us at all.”

Hartwig has been key in developing continuity. The seven-year veteran brought with him starting experience with Tennessee and Carolina. During the season, he hosted midweek video sessions at his house to fine-tune the assignments and create chemistry among the ever-changing cast.

“It was pretty much all business,” he said. “We would get a bunch of food and watch film. It was anything from gyros to P.F. Chang’s to Burger King to wings. My place was usually a mess afterward.”

The five-man group has remained intact since the Oct. 5 game against Jacksonville. The Steelers are 11-3 with their current line.

“This group has responded to the challenge, held a standard and provided winning performances for us,” Tomlin said.

The next challenge is an Arizona defense that posted seven sacks in three playoff wins. Along with athletic defensive ends Darnell Dockett and Bertrand Berry, Pittsburgh has to account for safety Adrian Wilson, who had two sacks against Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.

“They’ve got some really big guys,” Kemoeatu said. “They’re some big guys that are mobile and move well. But we’re going to be prepared for what they’re doing, identify it and stick to what we do.”

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