Kevin Gorman: Offensive line shuffle should be concern for Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger is surrounded by stars, yet when asked about weapons, the Steelers quarterback never fails to start with his offensive line.
If the front five is the most valuable to Big Ben, then the Steelers averted disaster last week when both starting tackles left the game against the Minnesota Vikings.
When the Steelers (2-0) play the Chicago Bears (0-2) on Sunday at Soldier Field, Chris Hubbard is expected to start at right tackle in place of Marcus Gilbert (hamstring).
Although the Steelers expressed no worries about Hubbard, if last season is any indication there should be concern about shuffling the starters.
It was in Week 3 a year ago that the Steelers started a six-game stretch where injuries became an issue on the offensive line. Left guard Ramon Foster left the Eagles game and missed the following game, against the Chiefs, with a chest injury and was replaced by B.J. Finney. Gilbert injured his left ankle and missed the Jets, Dolphins and Patriots games and was replaced by Hubbard. Maurkice Pouncey dislocated a finger at the Ravens, forcing Finney to play center. Only left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and right guard David DeCastro never missed a start.
“That's what happens. It's part of the game. Guys go down — you don't want it to happen and hope it doesn't — but you have to be prepared for that,” said DeCastro, who compared the versatile Hubbard to a Swiss Army knife. “That's why it's nice to have guys like ‘Hubb' or Finney, where you're not worried about too much of a drop-off.”
Where the playing time proved valuable for Finney and Hubbard, it came at a cost. The Steelers went 2-4 during that stretch and needed to win six consecutive games to clinch the AFC North title. Now, the offensive line is hoping those backups gaining experience will pay off. Finney has proven he can play guard and center. Hubbard played tight end in jumbo packages and filled in at left and right tackle against the Vikings.
“Whenever you have the group that we have and the accountability, even the guys that aren't starters look at themselves as starters because they know they can be in there if something happens,” Pouncey said. “We put a lot of trust in guys, and they hold up their end.”
What put the Steelers in a dangerous spot last week was when Villanueva left with heat-related issues, then Gilbert was injured. Villanueva returned, and Hubbard switched from left to right tackle. But the Steelers had only seven linemen active, so if Villanueva wouldn't have been able to continue they would have been forced to move Foster to tackle.
What helped the Steelers against the Vikings was playing in the crowd-friendly confines of Heinz Field. This week, they will be on the road at Soldier Field, where crowd noise could be a factor.
“It could be a little bit of an issue in a sense if we don't control the crowd,” Foster said. “If we're not efficient on offense, it can get real hectic. One question in an away game and confusion can lead to a sack or bad turnover. That's what we have to deal with, especially up front: communicating with Ben and letting him know where our points are. ...
“We have to keep the crowd in check because there are going to be some loud moments, period. We just have to make sure we're ahead of the chains more than anything.”
Finney said the Steelers' veteran linemen “probably over-communicate things” with the backups, “especially when you're in a hostile environment.” Roethlisberger said it doesn't matter who is playing in the front five. As long as the Steelers linemen follow the rhythm of his cadence, communication shouldn't be an issue.
“We can always mix it up and try to change things up,” Roethlisberger said. “But we've got all the guys who are going to play or potentially could play have been here for a while. There's always a feeling-out period. The biggest one is the center, the head bob and the timing of it all. As long as Pouncey's out there, I think everybody should be on the same page with it.”
Which is why Pouncey is one of the Steelers' most indispensable players. Not only has the eighth-year veteran been selected to the Pro Bowl in all five of his healthy seasons, but he makes the calls for an offensive line that allowed only 17 sacks last season and has given up three for 18 yards this season.
“It is difficult, but you've just got to have great communication,” Pouncey said. “If the guy next to you knows he has to do a little bit more speaking than normally, then he takes that responsibility, knowing he has to help out the guy next to him. It's a lot of talking out there. You have to be on top of your game.”
And ahead of the chains, if not on the scoreboard.
The Steelers know their success starts up front, especially when they shuffle.