Steelers' line under microscope against Ravens
Every spring over the last five years it seemed the Steelers would make retooling and rebuilding the offensive line a top priority. And every fall the five guys penciled in to start would either get hurt or get shuffled around to cover up a leak.
It was frustrating and, at times, borderline cruelly comic:
-Center Maurkice Pouncey's ankle injury that kept him out of the 2011 Super Bowl;
-The busted knee for guard David DeCastro that hampered his rookie season in 2012;
-Tackle Marcus Gilbert's various nicks and scrapes;
-The shredded knee that limited Pouncey to all of eight plays in 2013.
So calling the line patchwork would be an insult to patches.
Finally, mercifully, those days appear to be over. The backbone of Pittsburgh's first division title since 2010 - and the most productive offense in franchise history - is the jelling of a line that has come of age now that it's found a way to stay out of the trainer's room. Pouncey, DeCastro and left tackle Kelvin Beachum didn't miss a start, while minor injuries forced Foster and Gilbert to sit a handful of games combined.
''Maybe we were owed one by the football gods,'' Foster said with a laugh.
Either way, the group that takes the field Saturday night when the Steelers (11-5) host Baltimore (10-6) in the wild-card round is thriving. All five are young - ranging in age from 24-28 - but have each started at least 33 games. It goes from perennial All-Pro Pouncey to Beachum, a sixth-round flier in 2012 who has blossomed into an undersized but competent revelation protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.
The line - with more than a little help from tight ends Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, fullback Will Johnson and tailback Le'Veon Bell - kept Roethlisberger upright and the Steelers rolling. Roethlisberger took every snap and was sacked just 33 times, easily the fewest in a season in which he's played every game - even though he set a career high with 608 passes. His protection got better as the season went along. Roethlisberger hit the ground just twice during the four-game winning streak that propelled the Steelers back to the postseason after a two-year absence.
The results were scoreboard stretching. Pittsburgh's 436 points were the most in the franchise's 82-year history. Antonio Brown broke every significant team single-season receiving record, and Bell found enough room to finish second in the AFC in yards rushing and second in the league in yards from scrimmage.
The season included a 43-23 domination of the Ravens on Nov. 2. While Baltimore managed to get to Roethlisberger three times, he still lit up the Ravens' depleted secondary for 340 yards and six touchdowns.
He'll likely need to be just as effective on Saturday with Bell's status uncertain. The running back is dealing with a hyperextended right knee that forced him to miss practice again Thursday.
Pittsburgh won the last meeting even with Bell being limited to 20 yards on 10 carries. If he's unable to go, it puts more pressure on the line to give Roethlisberger time to work against a defense that finished with 49 sacks, second most in the league. Baltimore's front seven will be bolstered by the return of nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who sat the last four games after violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing drugs.
''We know they're going to be coming,'' Beachum said. ''They've got some great players, but we're playing with a lot of confidence.''
A feeling that trickles from the top down.
The Steelers hired Hall of Famer Mike Munchak as their third offensive line coach in as many years. Munchak's calming presence simplified the blocking scheme. It also worked in lockstep with offensive coordinator Todd Haley's commitment to a creative scheme that requires Roethlisberger to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
Foster calls Munchak ''by far one of the best coaches I've been around,'' one who isn't prone to wild mood swings.
''If you have a bad play, he's not going to make it seem like you're the worst player in the world,'' Foster said. ''He wants you to build on top of that.''
The foundation set over the last four years is at last paying dividends the Steelers believe will extend into Saturday night and beyond.
''We've got to put it on our shoulders,'' Foster said. ''It's like Ben said, this team goes as far as the offensive line goes and we've got to be good.''
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