Steelers' offensive line faces test vs. Niners
The Steelers' oft-maligned, perpetually thin-skinned offensive linemen were somewhat testy after the final practice session for Monday night's nonconference showdown of playoff-bound teams at Candlestick Park.
The Steelers (10-3) linemen had heard enough about the San Francisco 49ers' league-leading run defense. After all, the line is a patched-up unit that routinely struggles against teams with heavy sluggers in the trenches such as Baltimore and Houston.
In the 49ers, the Steelers will square up against a defensive front that is the catalyst of a run defense that grudgingly concedes only 70 yards a game.
While the Steelers' offensive linemen chose not to engage in a verbal spat with the confident 49ers about the challenge they face, wide receiver Mike Wallace climbed into the ring for them.
"We'll do what we have to do," Wallace said. "We're not going to make a lot of changes. We've going to run at them, and it doesn't matter that they're the No. 1 run defense.
"They're going to have to own up to that. They've been No. 1 against everybody else, but they haven't played us."
Admittedly, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians knows his offensive line has to perform at maximum efficiency if the Steelers are to stay in contention for the AFC North title.
That, however, appears somewhat in jeopardy, considering the Steelers are without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. More troublesome, one-time castaway, tackle Trai Essex, steps in at left guard with Doug Legursky moving to center.
Essex gets the start largely because the coaching staff has lost confidence in Chris Kemoeatu, who committed three penalties against Cleveland. It doesn't help that right tackle Marcus Gilbert was hospitalized Thursday with an infection and left tackle Jonathan Scott lashed out at rookie Cam Heyward in frustration during Saturday's practice.
This disjointed offensive line is facing a San Francisco team that until this year hadn't experienced a winning season since 2002. Yet, it faces an even greater challenge in protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who if history gauges correctly, will hobble onto the field with the postseason No. 1 seed within reach.
Just in case, coach Mike Tomlin will probably activate third stringer Dennis Dixon if veteran Charlie Batch gets the start in place of Roethlisberger.
"We don't have any concerns about whether Ben plays or not," Legursky said. "Whoever is at quarterback, we're behind him 100 percent.
"Chuck has won a lot of games for us, and Ben has won a lot of games for us. Either way, we have to protect them."
Either way, the Steelers must run the ball successfully to exploit a San Francisco secondary that has been seldom tested this season.
"I think they might be vulnerable in the secondary," running back Isaac Redman said. "I think our receivers have an advantage."
It's an opinion not lost on Wallace and Antonio Brown.
"We know we can stretch the field," Wallace said. "They will be staying back (in coverage) to try to keep us from going up top. We'll take the short stuff because we have guys who can run after the catch."
The 49ers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 consecutive games, strengthened their defense with the acquisition of defensive tackle Justin Smith. He is familiar with the Steelers' blocking schemes having dueled often with his former AFC North rivals from his days in Cincinnati.
"Justin is very disruptive," offensive lineman Max Starks said. "He and (Ray) McDonald do a great job of funneling the action to their linebackers."
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Steelers legend Blount to announce team’s second-round draft pick
- NFL Draft preview: UCLA’s Kendricks leads deep inside linebacker class
- Miami linebacker Perryman eager to stand tall on draft day
- Steelers wrap up pre-draft visits with four defensive players
- NFL Draft preview: Running back class is deep, talented
- NFL Draft preview: Interior linemen replace flash with experience this year
- Steelers bring in 2 more cornerbacks for visits
- NFL Draft preview: Thin crop of offensive tackles available
- Wisconsin’s Gordon flashes ahead of the pack
- Steelers won’t be backed into a corner at NFL Draft
- NFL draft preview: Rich harvest of receivers