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Steelers offensive line looks to continue to dominate

| Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, 9:30 a.m.

Marcus Gilbert rolled the word around in his head, and actually felt bad when he heard it spill off his lips.

The word: Demoralize. Definition: What the Steelers' running game did to the Miami Dolphins' run defense.

During one 10-play, 83-yard drive that lasted 5:27 in the second quarter of the AFC wild-card game, running back Le'Veon Bell, Gilbert and five other big-bodied offensive linemen had their way with the Dolphins. Demoralizing is probably the best way to describe what happened Sunday at Heinz Field.

While ballooning the lead to 20-3 and with sixth lineman Chris Hubbard giving the unit some additional bulk, the Steelers didn't need quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to do anything but hand off to Bell. He repeated that almost mindless task nine times, and Bell ran for between 5 and 25 yards eight times, with one no gain and a 1-yard touchdown burst for the exclamation point.

“When you're having that much surge off the football, it demoralizes (the defense),” Gilbert said. “I don't want to use that word. It sounds pretty bad. But it does. It's an offensive lineman's dream. To go and watch film on that (Monday) was a pretty thing to watch.”

Such domination is what breeds champions, and the Steelers get a chance to take a significant step in that direction next Sunday when they visit the Kansas City Chiefs in a divisional round playoff game.

The scene will be different at Arrowhead Stadium than it was at Heinz Field. Crowd noise will make calling plays difficult for the visitors, but the Chiefs' run defense may be only marginally better than what the struggling Dolphins put in the trenches.

During the regular season, Miami was 30th in the NFL in average rushing yards allowed (140.4) while the Chiefs were 26th (121.1).

What will almost certainly remain the same — barring an unexpected setback at practice this week — will be the makeup of the Steelers' offensive line.

Left to right, they are listed as tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Ramon Foster, center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro and Gilbert at right tackle. Average height: Almost 6-foot, 6 inches; average weight: 319.6 pounds.

Overall, the five starters have missed a total of only six games.

“We've been playing together for so long, continuity grows; it builds,” said Gilbert, a second-round draft choice in 2011.

What's unique about the line is that its formation is a salary cap watcher's dream: The Steelers have not been forced to invest five high draft choices in their attempt to put together a good line.

Only Pouncey (2010) and DeCastro (2012) were first-round picks. Villanueva and Foster weren't drafted.

“We have a great group of guys who are determined to get the job done and control the line of scrimmage and not be denied,” Gilbert said. “All five guys are playing like that.”

Villanueva is the newest member of the line, beginning his string of 29 consecutive starts last year against the Chiefs. He said the Dolphins game Sunday wasn't one of his best, so his quest for perfection — taking root at West Point and honed through three tours of duty with the Army in Afghanistan — continues daily.

“I wish there were a couple of plays that I could take them back,” he said. “I never look at it (as) 'Did I play well?'

“I said, 'Did I play to the best of my ability?' The answer was no, so I just have to play better.”

He also wouldn't allow reporters to draw him into the ongoing debate by media and fans on whether Roethlisberger risked injury Sunday by staying in the game after it had been all but decided.

“I've never thought in the middle of the game why we are doing something,” he said. “I follow orders from the coaches.

“My job of blocking whoever is in front of me is hard enough that I shouldn't be worried about anything else.

“If I do that, (offensive line) coach (Mike) Munchak is going to be happy about my performance and that's honestly the only thing I care about.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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