Steelers' offensive line answers critics, opens holes

Posted Feb. 04, 2011 @ 11:42 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

DALLAS — They have no fancy nickname as a group. Other than their immense size, they don't much look alike.

But the bond that ties together the Steelers' offensive line runs deeper than that. They might not be Everybody's All-Americans, but this is a group that can look and laugh at their critics now from the game's biggest stage.

What else do they have in common? Strength, resilience and fight.

"Nine times out of 10, the critic that has something negative to say about (the offensive line) doesn't want to see me on the field," Steelers OLT Jonathan Scott said.

Scott is a good representation of the group. The left tackle, Scott swung over from the right side when starter Max Starks landed on injured reserve. After only 14 starts through four seasons with the Lions and Bills, Scott has stepped up as a rock-solid protector for QB Ben Roethlisberger's backside.

He's neither highly paid nor highly praised, but quietly Scott has gotten better seemingly with each game. The unit peaked — ironically, after its one star, Pro Bowl rookie C Maurkice Pouncey got hurt — in the first half of the AFC championship game over the Jets.

Scott said it was the group's chance to show the world what it could do. They rolled their way toward 166 rushing yards, with Rashard Mendenhall (121 yards) helping build the insurmountable 24-3 first-half lead.

"It was just kind of a statement that we know how to play this game, and we know we can play it well," Scott said. "It's about playing physical football and everybody on our offensive line has that attribute. So going out there and doing it against a great defensive line, it just reconfirmed that what we've been doing all year wasn't a fluke.

"We plan to do the exact same thing, to bring the fight to Green Bay (in the Super Bowl) and come out with a W."

The Steelers know the challenge at hand. The Packers' defensive line, now that DE Cullen Jenkins has returned as a force, is a tough front, and OLB Clay Matthews rivals the Steelers' James Harrison as one of the league's best edge rushers.

If the Steelers have to go without Pouncey, who is gamely battling through a high ankle sprain, they'll be all systems go with backup Doug Legursky.

"We know what Doug brings," OL coach Sean Kugler said. "He's a very smart player. He brings a lot of intensity and toughness. That's why we brought him in here in the first place and we have all of the confidence that he'll do the job on Sunday."

Most of the football world was introduced to Legursky after the Pouncey injury against the Jets, but he started four games earlier in the season at guard. Trai Essex, who will be the emergency center behind Legursky, has started five games this season. Ramon Foster has started eight at guard.

They've had to roll with the injury punches they have taken all season along. Although the group has had its share of tough games in terms of blocks missed and sacks allowed, the overall product has been pretty darned good. Their flexibility has served them well.

"It's definitely not ideal, but we were prepared for it," said Essex, who has been a member of both Super Bowl-winning Steelers teams the past six years. "Coach Kugs did a a great job of preparing us in the offseason … to play multiple positions at a moment's notice. He said that was the only way we were going to make the team, is to have position flexibility.

The only two O-linemen to start all 16 games this season were ORT Flozell Adams and Pouncey. But Adams was far from being a set-and-forget guy. The longtime Cowboys left tackle not only was switching teams for the first time, but he also was playing the right side for the first time in his career.

"It wasn't that big an adjustment, but it did take me four or five games to get comfortable," Adams said. "Now, it's second nature. It was (moving my) left first, now it's right foot first. That's the biggest thing. Everything's just turned around."

Adams said he occasionally needed to throw his massive arm around Foster, a second-year player who beat out Essex around midseason. The former undrafted free agent needed a pick-me-up after a bad game, a bad practice or just to prevent him from getting too down on himself.

"I knew what he was going through," Adams said. "Every young player goes through that at some point. He pulled out (of it) fine. He's all set now."

Roethlisberger has made sure to give his line plenty of shout-outs this week. He has been quick to praise the group. You won't hear a bad word from the coaches, either. They might not have the reputation, nationally, but they have the support of their locker room and fans, and they have each other's back.

"There are certain guys in the league that have gotten a lot of praise for what they've done, but you can't get to the Super Bowl if you're not an above-average group of guys," Scott said. "We've got guys, including myself, that go out there and play hard. If you look hard enough, you'll see that our offensive line gets after it."

Two years ago, after beating the Cardinals in the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger famously quipped: "Who's laughing now, O-line?" If the Steelers win again, you can be sure — for good this time — that no one will be laughing any longer.