Kevin Gorman: Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert's goals could lead him to Pro Bowl
Marcus Gilbert's primary goal is to protect Ben Roethlisberger, doing everything he can to protect the Steelers' 36-year-old quarterback.
"When I'm on the field going against anybody, I have respect for a lot of guys," Gilbert said, "but my whole thing is to dominate you and to finish the game without anybody touching Ben."
Gilbert knows the key to keeping Big Ben safe is to stay healthy, and that's the right tackle's secondary goal.
Last year, Gilbert played in only seven regular-season games. He was sidelined five games by a hamstring injury and four after being suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
That makes this a bounce-back year for the 30-year-old Gilbert, who can't afford another season sabotaged by injuries or suspensions.
"I don't have anything to prove to myself. I just know that if I stay healthy, the sky's the limit," Gilbert said. "My main focus is limit the distractions, as far as the suspensions and what happened last offseason, and staying healthy and staying ready and flexible and taking it one game at a time.
"If I take it one game at a time throughout 16 games, I know it gives us a better chance of winning and helps our team do big things."
That's the problem. Gilbert has played in all 16 games only once in his eight-year career, in the 2015 season. He has missed at least three games every other season.
That's why Gilbert spent the offseason working with physical therapists and trainers to improve his flexibility in his hamstrings, calves and ankles.
"If my lower body is great, there's really few people that can get around me or dominate me or our side, especially working with a guy like Dave, who just makes things so much easier," Gilbert said of right guard David DeCastro.
Gilbert admits to being frustrated by the hamstring injury, which aren't common for offensive lineman and limited his explosiveness.
"They're the type of injuries that never go away. They just nag you and nag you, especially when you want to get out in space. You can't really turn it on full speed because you're scared of pulling something," Gilbert said. "But last year is behind me. I've got so much time to work on my flexibility with my hamstring, my muscles, my joints, everything this offseason. I feel really comfortable with where I'm at right now. I feel that I'm coming into a better position this year than last year."
Gilbert doesn't have much choice. He is the Steelers' most veteran tackle, and their depth at the position took a blow when top backup Chris Hubbard signed a free agent deal with the Cleveland Browns and third-year Jerald Hawkins suffered a torn quadriceps in OTAs.
The Steelers front five attended every voluntary practice and is looking forward to getting more reps at mandatory minicamp Tuesday through Thursday.
It has only helped the innate connection Gilbert has with DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey.
"We've got to the point where we've played a lot of football together, so it's always great to have him back," DeCastro said of Gilbert. "With his experience over the years, the communication becomes a lot simpler. Half the calls you're making aren't real, so you're playing the game within the game. You don't even have to talk. It makes it easy."
In DeCastro, Pouncey and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers had three offensive linemen selected to the Pro Bowl in 2017. The Steelers have long contended Gilbert, when healthy, also has played at a Pro Bowl-caliber level.
But Gilbert knows his injury history has hampered his candidacy, so he believes a season of protecting Roethlisberger and staying healthy for 16 games could enhance his chances.
"It's a goal, but the two previous years it didn't happen and it's only slotted to three guys in the AFC," Gilbert said. "I'm not saying it will happen this year, either. I know that, and a lot of guys I play against know that as well, so there's a little bit of respect level on the field.
"It's one of those things you can't control what outsiders think of you but my peers? They do. We talk. We're all pretty good friends in the league, and we travel and see each other in the offseason. As long as you're out there all 16 games, you gain respect."
That's the goal that motivates Gilbert, one that could lead to the Pro Bowl.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.