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Steelers focus on trying to ensure offensive line stays healthy

| Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' offensive line practices Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, at St. Vincent.

With a position that has been as fragile as offensive line, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't leave anything to chance: All are required to wear knee braces during practice.

No exception.

“Everybody was kind of resistant at first, but we bought into it and recognized what coach is trying to do,” guard Ramon Foster said. “Good teams are healthy teams, and we have to be healthy this year. Getting out of camp healthy is one of the major things we are focusing on right now.”

The Steelers have had 20 different starting offensive line combinations over the past three seasons, and they aren't particularly deep this year.

It's not by coincidence that the Steelers have thrived over the past decade when they've had healthy offensive lines.

When they went 15-1 in 2004, the same line — Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Keydrick Vincent, Oliver Ross — started all 16 games. If it weren't for Smith's bad back, the same line would've started all 16 games each of the Super Bowl-winning years of 2005 and '08 as well.

Last year, the Steelers averaged 96 rushing yards and had one of the worst ground attacks in franchise history. They had seven different starting offensive line combinations and finished out of the playoffs at 8-8.

It is not an exact science — they had back-to-back 12-4 years in 2010-11 despite 14 starting line combinations — but it is a solid indication.

“That's at every position,” offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. said.

“But it is important that we stay healthy. How? Well, that's a great mystery right there. If somebody knew that …”

Tomlin might not know how to avoid injuries, but he is doing what he can to try to limit them.

“Coach Tomlin does it the way I think it should be done,” Bicknell said. “He constantly emphasizes taking care of your body, and he gives them time to do that. He will never shortchange guys from getting time in the hot tub or the cold tub.

This is the best I've been around as far as trying to eliminate injuries.”

The Steelers used a pair of first-round picks (Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro) and a pair of second-round picks (Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert) over the past three years to transfer a weakness into potential strength.

Throw in Bicknell's zone-blocking scheme and the addition of rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, and getting the ground game going isn't just lip service.

“It really is this year,” Pouncey said. “Last year it didn't work too well in practice, and we stopped doing it. This year we have dedicated ourselves to really go out and attack that plan, and it's working.”

But that plan can go awry.

Backups Kelvin Beachum and John Malecki have a career five combined starts. The Steelers added veteran tackle Guy Whimper, but after that, not one of the seven remaining linemen in camp has taken an NFL snap.

“If they are here, maybe they can contribute if they work hard enough,” Foster said. “The guys who have played have to show the others the way to do it.”

Bicknell put it a more succinctly.

“You can't have depth at every position,” he said. “We are only going to dress seven linemen on game days, so it can become a problem in a hurry.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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