Protection even more important with Steelers QB Roethlisberger's injury

| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, 1:18 p.m.

Ask any offensive lineman, and he will tell you that there is no worse feeling than allowing a sack. There's no question about that.

After the past couple of days, Steelers offensive linemen realized something actually can be much worse: allowing a sack to your already-injured franchise quarterback that knocks him out of Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Denver Broncos after he spent a week fighting through a painful shoulder injury to get on the field.

Roethlisberger on Thursday took another step toward playing when he was a limited participant in practice.

Roethlisberger told the Tribune-Review he has yet to throw a pass since suffering an AC joint sprain during last week's wild-card win against the Cincinnati Bengals, including Thursday's practice.

Roethlisberger did hand off a couple of times, which is something he did not do during Wednesday's first practice of the week. Roethlisberger likely will be a game-time decision Sunday in Denver.

If Roethlisberger does play, which history suggests he will, protecting him will be paramount, and it will be something on the minds of the offensive linemen.

“You have to think about it more,” guard Ramon Foster said. “The biggest thing dealing with Ben, if he does play, is the truth that you can't let him get hit. Those guys are quick and fast, and allowing him to get hit could be a game-changer.”

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert feels the same way.

“It is significant (to not allow Roethlisberger to get hit), especially with the significance of the injury that he had,” Gilbert said. “He is our leader, and we would love to have him out there, and we would rally around him. We have to do a better job than we did last game”

The offensive line gave up four sacks a week ago to the Bengals, including one to Vontaze Burfict that injured Roethlisberger's shoulder. However, the line has been pretty solid when it comes to protecting the quarterback — especially considering 40 percent of the unit got hurt early in the season (Kelvin Beachum and Maurkice Pouncey) — allowing 33 sacks and 60 quarterback hits.

The Steelers have been able to plug-and-go with Cody Wallace at center and Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle despite the two combining for six starts before getting inserted into the lineup.

“You can't let your quarterback get hit, regardless of who it is,” Villanueva said. “It is really bad if you give up a sack as an offensive lineman. You try to avoid that at all costs, regardless of who is playing.”

It won't be an easy task for the line this week for a multitude of reasons.

Of course there's Roethlisberger and the importance of keeping him upright, but Sports Authority Field in Denver is one of the louder stadiums in the league and the Broncos sport the most prolific pass rush in the NFL.

Led by outside linebackers Von Miller (11 sacks) and DeMarcus Ware (7 12), the Broncos collected a league-high 52 sacks for their top-ranked defense.

“It is a great challenge,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “Statistics don't lie. They have a ton of sacks. They bring it in waves. We have our hands full.”

The Steelers handled Miller and Ware the first time the two played last month. Neither had a sack or a tackle, but they had trouble with defensive lineman Malik Jackson, who had 1 12 sacks.

“They have good players on the defensive line that we have to account for as well,” Gilbert said.

And they have to make sure, if it is indeed Roethlisberger who starts, that he doesn't get touched.

“We always try to protect him as much as we can,” Wallace said. “We are going to do our best with that. He plays like he plays and extends the play, and things happen. We will do our best to keep him clean.”

Gilbert added: “We have to keep Ben upright and not let anybody near him. We are going to have to do whatever it takes.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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