Kovacevic: The Steelers' above-the-line rescue
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 10:06 p.m.
If the offensive line forms the foundation of any NFL franchise, then it's nothing less than a seismological miracle the Steelers haven't been splattered across the stratosphere, right?
I mean, it isn't enough to say the line has used nine players to man the five positions.
Or that there have been 16 distinct combinations.
Or that the zone-blocking scheme in which they'd invested countless hours at Latrobe had to be scrapped by September.
Or that Maurkice Pouncey, their only Pro Bowl player, was finished after eight snaps.
Or that Fernando Velasco, signed off his couch to replace Pouncey at center, had all of three practices to pick up the playbook.
Or that Mike Adams looked so intimidated against the Vikings in London that he might as well have been ushering Jared Allen back to his quarterback.
Or that Levi Brown, the veteran acquired from the Cardinals to replace Adams at left tackle, was finished after his first warmup.
Or that Rashad Butler, one of several spare parts accumulated along the way, left the Steelers the day after signing for what the team called “personal reasons.”
Or that Velasco would be finished before long, as well.
Or that Cody Wallace, the third center for a team that once boasted three men at the position over three decades, would be fined half of his $37,000 game pay for two ugly infractions in his debut.
No, just about the only complete way to assess all the damage done by this line is to add up … um, the four sacks and eight quarterback hits they've allowed in the past four games?
Wait, is that real?
“The guys have gotten the job done,” Jack Bicknell Jr., the first-year offensive line coach, was telling me with a broad smile the other day on the South Side. “Give the players the credit. They're the ones who have gone out there and met the challenge.”
There's been an awful lot to dislike about these 5-8 Steelers, especially of late, and there might be more following this Sunday night meeting with — say it with me — the first-place Bengals. But it's only fair, maybe even fairer in that context, to spotlight maybe the season's most remarkable facet: That Bicknell and no more than two mainstay players, guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro, have kept the team from completely capsizing.
I'll take it further: Bicknell deserves the highest grade of anyone on Mike Tomlin's staff in 2013.
The intricacies of blocking in today's NFL are only magnified by the challenge of adjusting weekly to the defense being faced. For the Steelers to have had any semblance of consistency there, given the moving parts, is a testament to the man.
“Coach Bick is our glue,” tackle Marcus Gilbert was saying. “He's a great teacher, a great motivator, never let us get down or worry about what was happening out of our control. He's always cool, always positive.”
Could be the pedigree. Bicknell is as much of a football lifer as it gets. His father Jack Sr., was head coach at Boston College and for 14 years with Barcelona of the old NFL Europe. His brother, Bob, coaches the Eagles' wide receivers. His own playing career including snapping the ball for Doug Flutie's iconic Hail Mary at BC, and he went on to eight years as head coach at Louisiana Tech and another four as an NFL assistant before coming to Pittsburgh.
“I learned a long time ago that nothing comes easily in football,” Bicknell said. “Same goes for this season. Have we been hit by a lot of different things? Sure. But in football, you keep going.”
As for the athletes: DeCastro is maturing toward a Pro Bowl level at right guard and looks like a fine first-round pick. Foster has been Foster, plus he's taken on the unusual role of a guard calling line signals with Pouncey and Velasco lost. Velasco was solid enough that management should consider bringing him back. Kelvin Beachum fared well in playing nearly every line position — plus tight end! — and became beloved in the locker room for solidifying left tackle. Adams and Gilbert remain projects, but it would be hard to say either isn't improving.
Of the beleaguered Adams, Bicknell said, “Mike's worked hard. Left tackle's a tough position to play in the NFL. I've watched him really carefully after his tougher games, and he's kept his chin up. That means a lot to me.”
When the Steelers won their last Super Bowl, they used only two line combinations the whole way. It's no coincidence. Chemistry on the line is critical, more than with any unit in football.
It still can happen with this group. All five projected starters will be back for 2014, and all will be younger than Foster, only 27 himself. And maybe, if they keep Bicknell's attitude, they could at least benefit from 2013 as a test passed.
“I think what we've done this year, how we've grown, will help. I believe that,” Foster said. “The way it's worked in here, because of everything that's happened, we've learned we have to stay thick. We could have fallen apart in here, and it didn't happen.”
No, they didn't. Unlike pretty much everything above that foundation.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic
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