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Steelers offensive line settling into its comfort zone

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 7:22 p.m.
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Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey holds off Baltimore Ravens defensive linemen in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 2, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Steelers offensiveline against the Jets at Heinz Field Sept. 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

The last time quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was behind center, the offensive line collapsed under Kansas City's relentless pressure.

As a consequence, Roethlisberger was knocked out of action for three games with shoulder and rib injuries. With Roethlisberger set to return Sunday against the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field, the Steelers' front five have vowed to keep him clean.

“We really need to come out and make a statement,” guard Ramon Foster said. “The biggest part is communication. We've all been on the same page, and it's worked out for us.”

The offensive line, which surrendered six sacks in protecting backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, played arguably its best game of the season in a 23-20 win over AFC North leader Baltimore this past Sunday.

Even with All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey playing out of position at left guard, the Ravens barely touched Batch. Generally, Batch was given ample time to survey the field in completing 25 of 36 passes for 276 yards.

“The offensive line was phenomenal,” Batch said. “I held onto the ball a couple of times that resulted in sacks, and I shouldn't have.

“I think (right tackle Kelvin) Beachum really played great. I don't think anybody expected him to be out there on an island at right tackle and hold his own in a hostile environment. I think he exceeded everybody's expectations.”

Suddenly, the expectations are much loftier for an offensive line that has endured an array of injuries this season.

It has carried on without tackle Marcus Gilbert and first-round draft pick David DeCastro, and guard Willie Colon has missed the past two games with a knee injury.

The Steelers have yielded only 25 sacks after giving up 42 last season. More impressive, the offensive line has dealt with adversity better than it did in 2011.

For the most part, its improved consistency has been overshadowed by Roethlisberger's injury, a perpetual battle at running back and a top-ranked defense that has been credited for rescuing the Steelers' playoff hopes.

However, the offensive line played a key role in the win at Baltimore. And it's likely to be counted on again against the Chargers, whose defensive schemes are somewhat similar to the Ravens.

“It's always a good thing when the offensive line isn't mentioned,” Starks said.

“You look for your teammates to say how well you played. I think anonymity loses its value if the media talks about what the offensive line did.

“We weren't called for penalties, and we didn't do anything stupid as far as assignment errors and giving up sacks. When you look at the Cleveland game (a 20-14 loss), our line was penalized for holding penalties, phantom chop blocks and tripping.”

Again, the offensive front will be forced to prove itself, considering any loss could potentially derail the Steelers' postseason chances.

The 4-8 Chargers are simply playing out the string with a lame-duck coaching staff. That, of course, could make them tough to beat.

“We have to be head-on with those guys,” Foster said. “We've got to play as well as we did in Baltimore.”

“We felt like we did a reasonably good job of protecting Charlie,” guard Doug Legursky said. “San Diego does a couple of different things with their pressure packages, but it's similar to what Baltimore does.”

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923

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