Steelers' linemen slowly gain experience
Talk to an offensive lineman, and before long, the words continuity, cohesiveness or chemistry will likely be mentioned.
It turns out that there is a pretty good explanation why offensive linemen always turn to those words as if it was their mantra - because continuity, cohesiveness and chemistry are that important.
The Steelers' offensive line is finding that out.
The beleaguered unit that ranked near the bottom in nearly every category last year is slowing making the climb toward respectability, and it all can be traced back to how long they have lined up next to each other.
"It is about chemistry and experience," tackle Max Starks said. "The longer the group plays together as an offensive line, the better you are going to play just because you have the game experience of playing snap after snap and being able to execute a plan."
The line has methodically gotten better each week opening holes for running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker. They have jumped from the 29th-best rushing team in the league after Week 1 to 17th. They are averaging 111 yards per game on the ground and 4.3 yards per carry.
The unit has protected Roethlisberger better, too. They are on pace for surrendering nearly the same amount of sacks as they did last year, but Roethlisberger has had plenty of time to throw.
Out of the 27 times he has been sacked, only six of them came within 3 seconds after the ball was snapped.
"We have played together as an offensive line for some time now," center Justin Hartwig said. "You need cohesiveness as a line, and you have guys who have never played before who have stepped into roles and have been there and done that."
And it hasn't hurt that the same unit has been together for virtually the past two years. All five linemen - Hartwig, Starks, right tackle Willie Colon, left guard Chris Kemoeatu and right guard Trai Essex - have started every game this year.
Colon has 47 consecutive starts (including the postseason). He is followed by Hartwig and Kemoeatu (28 apiece) and Starks (23). Essex, who is filling in for the injured Darnell Stapleton, has nine consecutive starts.
"Are we the most talented• Not by any stretch of the imagination. Nor are the New York Giants," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "The New York Giants might be the best offensive line in the NFL, but take them individually, they're very average. Collectively as a unit, they're tough to beat. I think our guys are starting to feel that as a unit."
The Steelers' five linemen rank 24th in the league in experience with 225 career starts. Compare that to the Jets, who have 525 starts, and there is no comparison. The Jets are first in rushing yards and have given up only 15 sacks.
"You have to have five guys who have played together for a long time," Colon said. "You look at the Giants, and a lot of those lines they have five or six years together under their belts so they are going to be successful year in and year out."
The line has had some inconsistent games, but the good games have greatly outweighed the bad. However, there are still times when not everybody is on the same page. It happened last week when the Bengals overloaded one side of the line but only rushed four and still was able to sack Roethlisberger.
"I don't ride the emotional roller-coaster," Hartwig said. "I feel that we have gotten better as a group. We have started becoming more consistent, and I am happy with that."
The Steelers' offense is one of the more potent in the league. They average 365 yards and 23 points per game, a significant upgrade from 2008.
"We had five guys who needed to be on the same page and we weren't at times last year," Colon said.
Colon was the only holdover last year on the offensive line at the start of the season. Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith, Sean Mahan and Kendall Simmons were all gone from the 2007 starting line.
"You can put the five best offensive linemen on the team together and if they have no experience together ,they are not going to be good," Starks said. "It takes time."
The Steelers apparently are willing to give the line even more time. The organization locked up Starks (four years), Kemoeatu (five years) and Hartwig (three years) to long-term deals this past year.
"If we can keep this together, the sky is going to be the limit," said Colon, who will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Tomlin won't add starters to special teams
Safety Ryan Clark played special teams as recently as last year, so when the Steelers gave up their third kick return for a touchdown in four games last week, Clark made his way to coach Mike Tomlin's office to offer up his services.
"I asked," Clark said.
So did a handful of other starters, but Tomlin isn't interested in using players such as Clark, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and Brett Keisel to cover kicks.
"That's not what Coach Tomlin wants to do," Clark said.
The Steelers are last in the league in kick-return coverage and allowed the only touchdown in last week's 18-12 loss to Cincinnati.
"What we have to do is to get those guys who are out there to play better - not replace them and then relegate them to a backup role," Clark said. "Coach is taking that approach. He wants to coach it up, fix it, scheme it up the right way. He doesn't just want to put a Band-Aid on it."
A Band-Aid would consist of moving some more starters to special teams. William Gay and Ike Taylor are the only first-teamers on the kick-coverage unit.
One significant change will be the addition of linebacker Donovan Woods to the unit. He replaces Arnold Harrison, who was released. Harrison, a linebacker, signed with the Browns yesterday.
"We trust (Tomlin)," Clark said, "and we believe that this is the way to go about it."
"I look at those people as they don't know what they are talking about. I am coached to do certain things, and the No. 1 reason I am here is to kick kickoffs the best I can and to make field goals. I tried to make him cut back, and I did cross his path. When I look at the film, it looks worse than it was."
Steelers kicker, when asked about the criticism he is receiving for not making the tackle on Cincinnati returner Bernard Scott.
11 -- Touchdowns the Steelers' defense has given up this year.
7 -- Touchdown returns (special teams and defense) the Steelers have allowed this year.
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