Steelers' steady offensive line thriving despite injuries
PITTSBURGH (AP) There are few things the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen dread more than a video session with position coach Mike Munchak - who also happens to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his work with the Houston Oilers from 1982-93 - when things don't go well.
It's not that Munchak is a bad person. He just has a way of getting his point across that well, his players would rather avoid.
''You don't want to be the guy on film getting beat,'' guard David DeCastro said. ''You don't want to be the guy that misses his assignment.''
And for the most part, the Steelers haven't even though All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey hasn't played a snap since August after injuring his left ankle and left tackle Kelvin Beachum's season ended in October after injuring his left knee against Arizona.
Yet Pittsburgh (6-4) is fifth in the league in rushing and even though the Steelers have allowed 23 sacks - tied with Denver for 14th most - that number is skewed.
Nearly a third of that total came during backup quarterback Michael Vick's two starts as the backup quarterback held onto the ball rather than force a throw downfield he wasn't sure he should make.
While it's hardly perfect, it's ''above the line'' to borrow one of coach Mike Tomlin's pet phrases. Cody Wallace has been solid filling in for Pouncey while rapidly developing Alejandro Villanueva - a former Army Ranger - is getting better by the week.
In a way, the long-term injuries have actually given Wallace and Villanueva time to get comfortable. They understand they're not just holding a spot, but starters for the balance of the season. Villanueva is taking extra time to meet with Munchak, often stopping by the team's facility on Tuesdays - typically a day off for players - to go over the finer points of the job.
''Al's a real prideful guy and he's not going to let us down,'' guard Ramon Foster said.
Spending all of 2014 on the practice squad as he finished the transition from defensive to offensive line helped. So did absorbing what he could during position meetings. Villanueva's attention to detail at a position that demands precision is paying off.
''Obviously we didn't expect him to start this year, but it shows you the guy prepared and has confidence in himself,'' Munchak said. ''Every Sunday is a new experience for him. He sees something that he hasn't seen.''
And yet Villanueva has maintained his poise. So has Wallace, who made all of six starts in his first six seasons in the league before stepping in for Pouncey.
While Wallace says he's not quite the physical marvel Pouncey is, Munchak has refused to use that as an excuse to make too many modifications in blocking schemes. The Steelers still pull Wallace on some run calls and he's worked diligently to develop a rapport with starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
When Roethlisberger was forced to play basically on one foot against Cleveland two weeks ago after fill-in Landry Jones went down with an ankle injury, Wallace and Villanueva were integral parts of a performance that helped keep Roethlisberger upright in a 30-9 romp.
''It's all about communication,'' Foster said. ''We're not sliding over to help anybody out. Everybody has their job and we trust them to do that no matter who is out there.''
That sense of duty faces a significant test on Sunday when the Steelers travel to Seattle (5-5). Pittsburgh has struggled playing out West in recent years and execution will be at a premium as it tries to maintain its spot atop the wild-card standings in the AFC.
''We have to be on point,'' Foster said. ''There can't be any false starts or anything like that ... it's on us to make sure we give Ben and our skill guys a chance to make plays.''
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