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Old 01-28-2009, 07:47 PM   #1
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Default Steelers' offensive line continues to jell

Steelers' offensive line continues to jell
By John Harris
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. The Steelers' offensive line features four new starters, although not all by choice.

Injuries sidelined left tackle Marvel Smith and right guard Kendall Simmons for the season. Center Justin Hartwig replaced an ineffective Sean Mahan, and left guard Chris Kemoeatu took over for Pro Bowler Alan Faneca. Right tackle Willie Colon is the only returning starter.

So what may have been billed as possibly the worst offensive line in Super Bowl history is actually a work in progress.

The offensive line may not be what some people want it to be, but it was good enough to help the Steelers reach Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals.

"They've been underdogs all year, and I think they like that," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "They thrive on that adversity."

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians made it sound Tuesday like the Steelers expected some early growing pains on the offensive line. After all, how could they not?

"We rebuilt it back in the spring and in the summer, and then we lost two key ingredients (Smith and Simmons) and had to redo the whole thing," Arians said during Super Bowl media day. "These were guys that were sitting in the back room for a couple of years when Faneca and all those guys were starting in the Super Bowl.

"They got beat up a lot in September and October, and I think they have taken a lot of pride in proving people wrong."

Right guard Darnell Stapleton is the only offensive line starter who wasn't drafted. Stapleton was signed as a free agent out of Rutgers in 2007. He stepped in when Simmons was lost with an Achilles injury against Baltimore in the fourth game of the season.

One game later, Smith went down after suffering a back injury against Jacksonville. Max Starks, who started at right tackle for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL, replaced Smith at left tackle.

Throw in the fact that Hartwig was learning a new offense while also trying to become comfortable calling signals at the line of scrimmage, and the potential for trouble was always a possibility.

"It's been a gradual process, especially with me coming in as my first year as a starter," said Hartwig, who played for Carolina the previous two seasons. "We had a couple of injuries early in the season and we got some young guys in there. It's been a matter of us playing more and more together as the season went on and getting used to each other."

With 13 consecutive starts under its belt as a unit (including two playoff games), how does the Steelers' offensive line look headed into Super Bowl XLIII?

"I think we are playing our best football of the year," Hartwig said.

Arians said the offensive line is playing better late in the season because of the confidence that results from familiarity.

"They have a nice bond," Arians said. "I think when you get to the offensive line, cohesiveness is sometimes overlooked because people want to talk so much about talent, but those guys are so close. That closeness, I think, has brought that success."

"We are practicing hard, but we spend a lot of time together off the field," said Hartwig, who has played with a knee injury in the playoffs. "We've been getting together during the week at my house and watching film and just talking through it without any of the coaches there. I think that's helped us out a lot."

Roethlisberger, who hasn't committed a turnover in the postseason, is noticing the difference.

"They believed in themselves, and I believed in them when no one else did," he said. "They have been playing the underdog card all year, and they should."

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432
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