Steelers' offensive line faces test vs. Niners

Ralph N. Paulk
| Monday, Dec. 19, 2011

The Steelers' oft-maligned, perpetually thin-skinned offensive linemen were somewhat testy after the final practice session for Monday night's nonconference showdown of playoff-bound teams at Candlestick Park.

The Steelers (10-3) linemen had heard enough about the San Francisco 49ers' league-leading run defense. After all, the line is a patched-up unit that routinely struggles against teams with heavy sluggers in the trenches such as Baltimore and Houston.

In the 49ers, the Steelers will square up against a defensive front that is the catalyst of a run defense that grudgingly concedes only 70 yards a game.

While the Steelers' offensive linemen chose not to engage in a verbal spat with the confident 49ers about the challenge they face, wide receiver Mike Wallace climbed into the ring for them.

"We'll do what we have to do," Wallace said. "We're not going to make a lot of changes. We've going to run at them, and it doesn't matter that they're the No. 1 run defense.

"They're going to have to own up to that. They've been No. 1 against everybody else, but they haven't played us."

Admittedly, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians knows his offensive line has to perform at maximum efficiency if the Steelers are to stay in contention for the AFC North title.

That, however, appears somewhat in jeopardy, considering the Steelers are without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. More troublesome, one-time castaway, tackle Trai Essex, steps in at left guard with Doug Legursky moving to center.

Essex gets the start largely because the coaching staff has lost confidence in Chris Kemoeatu, who committed three penalties against Cleveland. It doesn't help that right tackle Marcus Gilbert was hospitalized Thursday with an infection and left tackle Jonathan Scott lashed out at rookie Cam Heyward in frustration during Saturday's practice.

This disjointed offensive line is facing a San Francisco team that until this year hadn't experienced a winning season since 2002. Yet, it faces an even greater challenge in protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who if history gauges correctly, will hobble onto the field with the postseason No. 1 seed within reach.

Just in case, coach Mike Tomlin will probably activate third stringer Dennis Dixon if veteran Charlie Batch gets the start in place of Roethlisberger.

"We don't have any concerns about whether Ben plays or not," Legursky said. "Whoever is at quarterback, we're behind him 100 percent.

"Chuck has won a lot of games for us, and Ben has won a lot of games for us. Either way, we have to protect them."

Either way, the Steelers must run the ball successfully to exploit a San Francisco secondary that has been seldom tested this season.

"I think they might be vulnerable in the secondary," running back Isaac Redman said. "I think our receivers have an advantage."

It's an opinion not lost on Wallace and Antonio Brown.

"We know we can stretch the field," Wallace said. "They will be staying back (in coverage) to try to keep us from going up top. We'll take the short stuff because we have guys who can run after the catch."

The 49ers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 consecutive games, strengthened their defense with the acquisition of defensive tackle Justin Smith. He is familiar with the Steelers' blocking schemes having dueled often with his former AFC North rivals from his days in Cincinnati.

"Justin is very disruptive," offensive lineman Max Starks said. "He and (Ray) McDonald do a great job of funneling the action to their linebackers."

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