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02-05-2011, 07:00 AM
Kugler used to shuffling offensive lines

By Mark Kaboly
Saturday, February 5, 2011

DALLAS It was the first day of minicamp, and new Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler gathered his unit to state his expectations.

"He said no matter who is in there, we are getting the job done," Doug Legursky said.

Almost 10 months later, Kugler's words still are ringing true.

"I don't know if he had a Magic 8 Ball or what, but he was spot-on," backup tackle Tony Hills said.

Kugler has had to manage six different starting combinations this season and is dealing with the loss of starting center Maurkice Pouncey, whom coach Mike Tomlin officially ruled out of Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. What's more, five linemen have played three or more positions during a game this season.

But Kugler pulled on a recent and painful experience in Buffalo that ultimately cost him his job there to help his unit in Pittsburgh.

Last year, Kugler lost three starters and five linemen overall to injured reserve, was forced to field six tackle tandems and nine line combinations, twice signed players and was forced to start them four days later, and once even had to dress an injured player as the sixth linemen in case of an emergency.

"You probably never expect to go through a thing like that twice," Kugler said. "Unfortunately that happened for us this year."

Both Steelers starting tackles were placed on injured reserve Willie Colon in the spring and Max Starks midway through the season. Starting guard Trai Essex was injured in Week 2; Flozell Adams battled dehydration issues, sicknesses and knee problems; and Chris Kemoeatu missed time with a knee injury.

And now there's Pouncey, whose high ankle sprain against the New York Jets in the AFC title game has sidelined him for Sunday.

Still, the patchwork line has fared better than last year's unit, paving the way for eight more rushing yards per game while allowing nine fewer total sacks. A lot of that success is attributed to how Kugler set the tone early in the season.

"We knew that we were going to only dress seven on game days," Kugler said. "Everybody had to be position flexible and had to be able to step up because of an injury. It's been a wild ride."

It started when Colon and rookie draft pick Chris Scott were hurt during the spring, followed by a Week 1 injury to Starks.

Kugler had to shuffle players at different positions nearly every series because of dehydration issues during the second half of a Week 2 game at a hot, humid LP Field in Tennessee.

"That's unheard of, and hopefully that never happens again," Kugler said.

The Steelers won the game and ran for more than 100 yards despite the hodgepodge unit Kugler was forced to employ.

"He just knows how to deal with it and adjust accordingly," said Essex, who left the Titans game with an ankle injury. "That's how it has been all season long."

A few weeks later in Cincinnati, the line was so decimated that tight end Matt Spaeth was the next man in line to play if anyone else went down.

"It's all about resiliency," tackle Jonathan Scott said.

Kugler's approach has worked and is a reason the Steelers are in the Super Bowl.

When the Steelers gathered for their first minicamp session in April, the starting line was Starks, Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Essex and Colon.

The line that will start in Super Bowl XLV includes a fifth-round pick (Scott), sixth-rounder (Kemoeatu), two undrafted free agents (Legursky and Ramon Foster) and a 13-year veteran (Adams) who is in the first year with the Steelers.

"They embrace our motto that 'The standard is the standard,'" Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Guys have stepped up and proved that they are capable of being reasons why we win."

Mark Kaboly can be reached at mkaboly@dailynewsemail.com or 412-664-9161.

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