Steelers bracing for playing several games without center Maurkice Pouncey
David DeCastro doesn’t like envisioning a short-term future without teammate Maurkice Pouncey manning the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line.
It’s a reality DeCastro and the Steelers face in the aftermath of a three-game suspension that the team’s All-Pro center received for fighting with Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett at the end of a 21-7 loss Thursday night.
“That’s the last thing we need,” DeCastro said Monday afternoon.
On Tuesday, the Steelers could learn whether they will get Pouncey back sooner than his initial punishment. Pouncey’s appeal of his suspension will be heard by one of the league’s jointly appointed officers, James Thrash or Derrick Brooks.
Garrett’s appeal of his indefinite suspension, which will carry at least through the end of this season, will be heard Wednesday by Thrash. Browns defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, who received a one-game suspension, had his appeal heard Monday.
If Pouncey’s appeal is upheld, he will miss games against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the rematch with the Browns on Dec. 1 and a game at the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 8.
Pouncey was not present in the locker room at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Monday during the 45 minutes of media availability. Quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was hit on the head by his own helmet courtesy of Garrett, did not speak with reporters.
Pouncey’s absence is another significant loss for the 5-5 Steelers, who are trying to remain in the thick of the AFC playoff race despite having five players on injured reserve, three in the NFL concussion protocol, including starting wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson, and starting running back James Conner mending an aggravated shoulder injury.
“He’s been the backbone of this offense,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said of Pouncey. “Last year, he was the only All-Pro we had on the team. Pouncey has been that dude for a long time. He’s the one that stirs the drink. Everybody feeds off his energy, he sets the tempo in his offensive line group, and he’s respected by his teammates.”
B.J. Finney, the top backup on the interior of the offensive line, will start in place of Pouncey. Finney’s previous two starts at center came when Pouncey was rested for the 2016-17 season finales against Cleveland. Aside from those two games, Pouncey has started every game since he spent 2015 on injured reserve. And he has been named to the Pro Bowl seven times.
“He’s a leader on our team, a captain on our team,” running back Jaylen Samuels said. “He knows everything. He’s a great player, a great person. Not having that leadership on the field is going to hurt us. … It’s going to be a huge loss, but we can’t let that define our play.”
Finney also has taken snaps at center when Pouncey routinely gets a day off from practice each week. Practice squad player Patrick Morris is the only other center on the roster.
“Luckily, Finney has experience,” DeCastro said. “It’s hard when guys don’t have experience. Finney does. He’s not Pouncey. Pouncey is who he is, but he’s done great when he’s filled in before, and I expect him to do it again.”
The onus will be placed on the remaining offensive line veterans, a group that includes DeCastro, guard Ramon Foster, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and, to a lesser extent, right tackle Matt Feiler.
“This is their opportunity to step up even more,” Heyward said. “I know Finney has played a lot in past years (at guard), but those guys have been around the block and know what they are doing.”
Pouncey’s absence means when the Steelers take the field Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, Heyward will be the only one of the four captains elected before the season to play in the game. The other two, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and fullback Roosevelt Nix, are on injured reserve.
“I never expected it to go this way,” Heyward said. “We’ve had some injuries and things have happened. Those guys are going to lead in different ways, whether it’s off the field or getting guys ready and continue to communicate. When you get that ‘C,’ there is a respect and consistency that you are always used to.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .