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Old 11-03-2006, 07:50 AM   #1
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Default Offensive line faces a shuffle

Steelers' offensive line faces a shuffle
Friday, November 03, 2006

By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It is beginning to look like the 2003 season again, right down to the losing record and juggling on the offensive line. And a game against the Denver Broncos. Not that anyone wants to remember.

The Steelers were 2-4 after a 17-14 loss in Denver Oct. 12, 2003, a game in which they used a number of different offensive combinations that included moving Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca to left tackle to replace injured Marvel Smith.

The Steelers are 2-5 and ready to juggle their offensive line again, just in time for the Broncos to come to Heinz Field for a rematch of the AFC championship game in January. This time, some of the changes are not being mandated because of injuries.

Chukky Okobi will make his first start in four years because Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings is out with a sprained knee, which was injured in the loss Sunday in Oakland. But Kendall Simmons likely will return to start at right guard in what has become some kind of weekly rotation with Chris Kemoeatu, who played most of the second half in Atlanta and started against the Raiders.

"The offensive line is kind of tough, shuffling people in and out, because you want to get some rhythm going," Simmons said. "That's tough. But you leave it up to coaches. They try to find the right fit to get some things going."

The Steelers need to get something going after a horrid and unexpected start. And while the offensive line hasn't been the lone culprit in the first seven games, it was among the prime suspects in the embarrassing, 20-13 loss to the Raiders.

Not only was Ben Roethlisberger sacked five times in a game in which he threw four interceptions; two offensive linemen missed key blocks on back-to-back plays that prevented the Steelers from scoring on first-and-goal from the 1 with two minutes left.

In each instance, Raiders linebacker Robert Thomas knifed through to stop Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport for losses. Okobi missed the first block on Thomas when Parker lost a yard on first down, a play in which Faneca pulled from the left side. And right tackle Max Starks missed on second down when Thomas stopped Davenport for a 3-yard loss.

"I'm sure there is a play or two everyone wishes they could have back, that might have been a difference," Okobi said. "But did I look like an idiot? No. I wish I would have played better because I wish we would have won."

Okobi, though, made one of the big blocks that enabled the Steelers to sneak back into the game after the Raiders made it 20-6 with a 100-yard interception return for touchdown. Okobi's downfield block on linebacker Kirk Morrison allowed Parker to score on a 25-yard screen pass with 7:18 remaining.

Okobi, in his sixth NFL season, will replace Hartings against the Broncos (5-2), his first start since Dec. 8, 2002, when he completed a three-game stretch as the replacement for the injured Hartings.

"Physically, I don't think anything has changed much [since his last start]," Okobi said. "I might be a little bit shorter since they took that piece of my disk out. The only difference, I would say, is from a confidence standpoint. I've been in this league for a while. This ain't my first rodeo."

Okobi was referring to neck surgery Aug. 9 to remove a portion of a herniated disk, an injury that, at first diagnosis, was called potentially career-threatening by coach Bill Cowher. But Okobi has rebounded more quickly than expected and will be counted on to perform the same duties as Hartings against the Broncos. The Steelers do not alter their game plan just because a starter is missing.

"That's the way it should be done," Okobi said. "Just because you have one person out doesn't mean everybody else has to adjust to the new guy. It doesn't make any sense. The new guy has to fall in line and do what everyone has to do."

Such is the case with Simmons, even though he isn't a new guy.

Simmons began to lose his grip on the starting position when he did not play against Kansas City because of an ice burn on his right foot. Kemoeatu played very well as the Steelers rushed for a season-high 219 yards in a 45-7 win. Simmons returned to start against the Falcons but was replaced early in the second half. Kemoeatu started against the Raiders and played the entire game. Simmons did not play and not because of his injury.

"It's disappointing to a certain degree, but it's the nature of the game," Simmons said. "It happens to all of us eventually. I didn't think it would be that early."
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