Kovacevic: Steelers' foundation is depth

| Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011

A handful of reporters surrounded Keenan Lewis in a corner of the Steelers' cramped locker room at Arrowhead Stadium late Sunday night. In another corner a few feet away, a similar group surrounded Ryan Mundy.

All of which kept William Gay, another defensive back, a starting defensive back, from getting to his stall to get dressed. So, the man stood in the middle of the room, holding a towel about his waist, waiting for the backups to get done talking.

And totally loving it.

"This is great to see, to be honest with you," Gay told me. "Those guys work so hard. This is their time."

Lewis and Mundy each had come off the sideline to make an interception that night in Kansas City, with Lewis' last-minute pick sealing the 13-9 victory.

Gay knows the feeling, as do many others on the roster.

For all the whining still going on about an 8-3 team perched atop the AFC — you'd think these were the Colts from the public reaction — has anyone noticed that the Steelers have used 37 combined starters, 18 on offense and 19 on defense?

That's a staggering figure 11 weeks into a season. It's more than the 35 starters they used all of last season, including the playoffs and Super Bowl. It's the second-most among the 12 NFL teams in playoff contention, one fewer than Oakland's 38.

Go back to the Steelers' 22 starters in that opening loss in Baltimore, and seven have missed at least a full game to injury, while six others have been benched for at least a full game.

Most teams with participation charts like these keep legitimate company with the Colts.

"We believe, all of us, in the guys playing behind us," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "And man, that's been big for us."

Maybe this has been lost a bit because the Steelers' key offensive players — Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace — have gone mostly unscathed. But it shouldn't go unappreciated. More than any sport, football is a game of attrition, and this is one battle — maybe the only battle — the Steelers have won consistently all season.

David Johnson and rookie Weslye Saunders, with his elegant touchdown Sunday, have joined Heath Miller to make a terrific trio at tight end. Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery have the receiving corps at five deep. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer shined in the lone game Mendenhall missed. Add those up, and it's easy to see how the Steelers could deploy three dramatically different sets Sunday — three running backs, four wideouts and three tight ends — on their first drive alone.

Get this: The offense has seen 11 different players score touchdowns, with Saunders the newest.

The defense has used nine different lineups but still ranks No. 2 in the NFL. Gay took Bryant McFadden's job in the second week. Lewis has found a home in the nickel. Mundy was sound in Troy Polamalu's absence Sunday. There have been only four games with all four starting linebackers, and the substitutes haven't been spectacular — good luck replacing James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley — but Jason Worilds has graded well of late.

In general, any pouting has stayed out of sight. McFadden, for example, has fallen as far on the depth chart as anyone, from Super Bowl starter to special teams, but he has been an energetic and effective performer on kick coverage.

Give credit for the environment to Mike Tomlin.

As Mundy put it, "Coach T makes sure that everyone in that meeting room, everyone who gets a helmet on game day, we've got to be capable of helping us win."

At his news conference Tuesday, Tomlin described the depth chart — as only he can — as presenting "awesome dilemmas" in lauding the play Sunday of Lewis, Mundy and Saunders.

"We believe that we have starters and starters in waiting," Tomlin said. "Those guys are just men who are capable but need an opportunity. A lot of times, that opportunity is produced by the misfortune of others, but our expectations are the same. And thankfully for us, they've delivered."

None of this makes the Steelers unique or valiant or anything else requiring a John Facenda narration. But it goes a long way toward explaining why they are where they are, even when the naked eye often suggests they should be somewhere else entirely.

Additional Information:

It takes a village

The Steelers have used the second-most offensive and defensive starters among the 12 teams in the NFL's playoff picture:

Team: Record, Starters

Raiders: 7-4, 38

Steelers: 8-3, 37

Saints: 8-3, 37

Bengals: 7-4, 36

Falcons: 7-4, 34

Packers: 11-0, 33

Cowboys: 7-4, 32

Bears: 7-4, 31

49ers: 9-2, 30

Texans: 8-3, 30

Patriots: 8-3, 30

Ravens: 8-3, 28

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