Steelers center showing even more signs of improvement
A smile is etched across Maurkice Pouncey's face so often it seems as permanent as one of the many tattoos that cover his body. Yet anytime there is pushing and shoving after a play, chances are the Steelers center is involved.
Given that seeming contradiction, it makes perfect sense that Pouncey describes himself as a "young old" guy as he prepares for his second NFL season.
"I'm a young guy in age," said Pouncey, who turned 22 in late July, "but on the field I'm kind of older."
Pouncey was the first Steelers offensive rookie since Ron Shanklin in 1970 to start every game during the regular season. In emerging as an anchor up front, Pouncey also became the first Steelers rookie offensive lineman to make the Pro Bowl since Frank Varrichione in 1955.
And all indications point to Pouncey building on a first season that exceeded all expectations.
"I have seen more leadership from him," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's being more vocal in his group, which is a good thing. He's earned that. If he takes a big leap between year one and year two, that would be pretty extraordinary."
Such progress would also go a long way toward helping running back Rashard Mendenhall eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for a third consecutive season and limiting the number of hits quarterback Ben Roethlisberger absorbs.
Pouncey's development may be the biggest reason for optimism on an offensive line that has its share of detractors and doubters.
"I just love everything about him," said veteran wide receiver Hines Ward. "He's a hard worker, he's always hustling and he's got a little bit of nastiness to him. Being the leaders of that line, you need to have that, and I think they're all starting to follow his lead."
Pouncey, the youngest starter on the Steelers, has embraced a leadership role.
"This year I'm so much more comfortable, especially with calling defenses," he said. "It's just a lot different, a lot different scenery now. I'm not too worried about what's going on in practice, I can go out there and comfortably call stuff and go out there and perform."
It's probably a little unsettling for defenders who locked up with Pouncey in 2010 to think about how much better the 6-foot-4, 304-pounder could be in his second season.
In addition to strength, Pouncey has the athleticism to get to the second level of blockers, the signature of former Steelers great Dermontti Dawson.
The one thing Pouncey didn't do in his rookie season was suit up for the Super Bowl. An ankle sprain sustained in the AFC Championship Game sidelined Pouncey for the biggest game of his life.
He could only watch helplessly as the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers, something he called the "worst feeling I've ever had."
"It won't be his last Super Bowl," Ward said. "He'll get back."
Pouncey, whose twin brother Mike is a rookie with the Miami Dolphins, appears to be serious in doing just that.
Despite the loss of offseason workouts and practices due to the NFL lockout, Pouncey reported to training camp in the kind of physical condition that drew praise from Tomlin.
Pouncey said he is always prepared, even if that means coming to the aid of one of his teammates after the whistle has blown.
In other words, don't let the smile fool you.
"I'm an aggressive player, and I won't back down," Pouncey said. "As an offensive lineman, you can never show anybody a weakness. There might be some things you get beat on, but backing down isn't one of them."
Steelers depth chart
The starters on the Steelers' depth chart, which the team released Monday.
Offense -- Defense
WR: Hines Ward -- DE: Aaron Smith
LT: Jonathan Scott -- NT: Casey Hampton
LG: Chris Kemoeatu -- DE: Brett Keisel
C: Maurkice Pouncey -- OLB: LaMarr Woodley
RG: Tony Hills -- ILB: James Farrior
RT: Willie Colon -- ILB: Lawrence Timmons
TE: Heath Miller -- OLB: James Harrison
RB: Rashard Mendenhall -- CB: Bryant McFadden
FB: David Johnson -- FS: Ryan Clark
QB: Ben Roethlisberger -- SS: Troy Polamalu
WR: Mike Wallace -- CB: Ike Taylor