After years of stability, Steelers offensive line shuffled by injuries
Maurkice Pouncey wore his signature smile as he walked through the Steelers locker room after practice Thursday.
“I was Jonathan Ogden out there today,” the All-Pro center said, referencing the Hall of Fame offensive tackle.
Pouncey, under a certain scenario, could play tackle when the Steelers host the New York Jets on Sunday
Chris Hubbard, a few feet away, talked about playing left and right tackle during certain possessions while at UAB.
Listed as a center/guard on the roster, Hubbard not only could play tackle Sunday but also is the favorite to do so from the start.
A week after the Steelers turned to their third-string left guard to start a game, it's highly likely they will be turning to a player who's their third option at right tackle to start one.
After two-plus years of relative stability among their starters on the offensive line and less than a month after touting how that stability projects to last well into the future following the signing of David DeCastro to a contract extension, the Steelers again are being forced to look deep into their depth chart.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) did not practice Wednesday, a day after coach Mike Tomlin referred to him as “highly questionable” to play Sunday. With backup tackle Ryan Harris (shin) also sitting out practice, that left Hubbard running with the starters at right tackle.
“I feel comfortable at tackle,” said Hubbard, who has no starts among his 11 career games played since being undrafted in 2013. “I played tackle in college, so I'm pretty familiar with it. It's just now a lot of big guys compared to college now, so it's definitely a challenge.”
Over a span of two-plus seasons between the start of the 2014 campaign and two weeks ago, the Steelers used eight players as starters along the offensive line.
Now, assuming Gilbert won't play Sunday (he is in a walking boot and did not play in the second half of Sunday's win against Kansas City), the Steelers will have used eight first-team linemen over two games.
“That would feel kind of crazy if it was five guys we brought in off the street,” Pouncey said. “But we've been playing with these guys for a long time. They know the offense. They're well-established in there.”
Pouncey was referring to Hubbard and undrafted free agent B.J. Finney, the latter of whom performed admirably last week in his first NFL start at left guard in place of the injured Ramon Foster (chest) and top backup Cody Wallace (knee).
Foster was back at practice Wednesday and said, barring a setback, he will return to game action Sunday.
Still, that leaves Hubbard, who is on track to make his first NFL start Sunday at right tackle despite having not practiced for the Steelers at tackle until at times last season.
“(Hubbard) has been a part of it, he's seen a lot of action, he's played in a lot of preseason games,” Pouncey said. “I think he's ready for the challenge and will take it and run with it.”
The Steelers' recent continuity and relative health of the offensive line since 2014 was in stark contrast to the three prior seasons when they used 15 starters in 23 combinations and had just two players start all 16 games of any season at one position.
Le'Veon Bell has 4,344 yards from scrimmage in 36 career games. His NFL debut coincided almost exactly with when the Steelers turned to their current offensive line configuration (with the exception of Kelvin Beachum giving way to left tackle Alejandro Villanueva midway through last season).
“I know what each lineman is good at. I know how our good pullers are, who's a great pass blocker and stuff like that and what they like to do,” Bell said. “So, I utilize that into my run game, and I adjust my runs according to a run call based on how good they are at it.
“Now with the guys we send in there, they are all solid players. I've got confidence in all of them, and I know they going to go out there and put everything on the line to make some holes for me.”