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Steelers' offensive line developing chemistry

| Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, 11:10 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers offensive linemen Fernando Velasco (68) and Kelvin Beachum block for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against the Browns on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Mario Williams, Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are making $35 million among them this season, yet they got no closer to Ben Roethlisberger than to say hello.

The sudden transformation in the Steelers' offense from a unit that could barely gain a first down during the 0-4 start to one that is averaging nearly 30 points in its past three games has multiple sources.

There is the no-huddle offense and the confidence it inspires — Emmanuel Sanders said the entire city of Pittsburgh believes in it. There is Roethlisberger's decision-making and the playmaking of Antonio Brown. There is the slow-but-sure improvement in the running game.

But, perhaps most of all, there is an offensive line that has shaken off multiple injuries, benchings, numerous lineup changes — five in the first nine games — and steady criticism to become … well, steady and protective.

“I felt like we've gotten better for the last month and a half,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Tuesday. “You could feel it. You could see it happening. We've figured out the guys that replaced the other guys and figured out strengths and weaknesses.”

Haley said the plan early was to lean on the no-huddle, but that changed when center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury eight plays into the first game.

It took time to break in new center Fernando Velasco and, later, for Kelvin Beachum to learn what effectively was a brand-new position in left tackle after Mike Adams was benched.

Now, with a stable unit of Beachum-Ramon Foster-Velasco-David DeCastro-Marcus Gilbert, the offensive line is developing chemistry — and, as Gilbert said, “an identity.”

The ongoing recovery by tight end Heath Miller from his December 2012 knee injury also is helping; the Steelers have a 87-48 scoring edge during their three-game winning streak.

“Guys have been doing a good job of stepping up and working with what we have,” Gilbert said. “It's been getting better from the top down. The coaching staff has been doing a good job of putting us in the best position to succeed. They're working to our strengths.”

The results are evident. Roethlisberger, sacked 35 times in the first nine games, has gone down only once in the past two against the Lions (Suh and Fairley) and the Browns (Rubin and Taylor).

“I think we're playing confident right now,” DeCastro said. “At the same time, we're careful to not get too optimistic or too overjoyed. We know where we've been, and I think we're nowhere close to where we want to go.”

The no-huddle is helping take the pressure off Roethlisberger because defenses can't pass rush as effectively when he's getting the football out quickly. Roethlisberger was blitzed at least 12 times by six teams, but the Lions blitzed him only four times.

“We've worked probably more on no-huddle than anything else we have, going back to last year,” Haley said.

When the Browns decided to bring pressure even when Roethlisberger was working out of the shotgun, he completed 10 of 14 passes, including his 41-yard touchdown throw to Brown.

“They can get tired real quick when they're rushing the passer and we're running the ball out of the no-huddle,” Velasco said. “The defense tends to get tired and they can't rotate like they would, and defensive linemen like to rotate a lot. It helps us get in a groove and stay on top of them.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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