Chris Kemoeatu arrived at training camp 15 pounds lighter than last season, all part of the preparation for his new role as the replacement for Alan Faneca at left guard.
And while nobody is expecting him to perform at the same level as Faneca, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, the Steelers are expecting him to perform some of the same roles. Among them: Pulling from the left side on the team's counter plays, something Faneca did to textbook perfection.
So far, that has been the least of Kemoeatu's problems as he begins his first season as a starter.
"He comes around the edge when he's pulling, whether it's a goal-line play or a trap play, and he kills people," said center Justin Hartwig.
"Especially those linebackers," said Kemoeatu, managing a wry smile through a dark, shaggy beard. "You have to take advantage of that."
- Game: Steelers vs. Houston Texans, 1 p.m.
- Where: Heinz Field.
- TV: KDKA
Steelers Forum: How far will the team advance this season?
Kemoeatu, a sixth-round pick in 2005, and Hartwig, who was signed in free agency to replace Sean Mahan, will be two of the three new starters for the Steelers when they open their regular season at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field.
As such, they will be two of the most-scrutinized players on an offensive line that struggled and underachieved last season, even though the Steelers finished second in the AFC in rushing.
Hartwig, beginning his seventh NFL season, doesn't have to look far to know how Kemoeatu is performing. He is next to him in the offensive line. It is the first time the Steelers will begin the regular season with two new starters playing side-by-side in the offensive line since guard Keydrick Vincent and right tackle Oliver Ross in 2004 -- the year their line had more combinations than a bank vault.
"The thing that stands out most about him is he's very powerful," Hartwig said. "He blows people up. He hits people hard. He head-hunts. It's always good to play with a guy like that who has a little mean streak in him."
The offensive line likely could stand a little nastiness, especially after the rude manner in which Ben Roethlisberger has been treated the past two seasons by opposing defensive lines (93 sacks combined in 2006 and '07, more than any other NFL quarterback).
Kemoeatu, who said he weighs in the "high-330s," brings that.
He always has been a powerful run-blocker and has stood out in the preseason with some of his vicious blocks when he pulls. But his pass protection -- and his ability to switch off blocking assignments -- will be tested against the Texans, a team that relies on defensive end Mario Williams to ignite a series of stunts designed to create confusion in the offensive line.
"I think we're going to get better and better the more we play against different opponents, as far as adjusting to stuff, communicating and talking to each other," Kemoeatu said. "I think we'll improve in that area."
The Steelers are hoping that will happen.
That was one of the reasons they signed Hartwig from the Carolina Panthers and gave him a two-year, $3,750,000 contract. The coaches wanted a center who could isolate on a nose tackle or defensive tackle and not always need double-team help from one of the guards -- something they thought happened too frequently last season with Mahan.
Still, Hartwig has started only three games with his new linemates and, by his admission, is still developing the cohesion necessary for an efficient offensive line.
"It's something we always strive for," Hartwig said. "But I've worked with these guys for three weeks. The longer the line plays together, the better they play together. That's just the way it is. It's only a matter of time before we're operating at a really high level. I expect that to be sooner than later."
It would be apocryphal to say all eyes will be on Hartwig, primarily because centers rarely are noticed by anyone other than coaches.
Still, his arrival in free agency underscores the importance the team places on the position -- and the stability and longevity historically associated with it. The Steelers had three centers from 1974 to 2006 -- Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings. Hartwig will be the third in the past three years.
"I can't wait to get out there and show my teammates and the Steelers organization what level I can play at," Hartwig said. "I'm just really excited to get out there and play. In the preseason, if you mess up, you get upset about it, but, in the back of your mind, you know it doesn't necessarily mean anything. I just can't wait to get out there and play for the Steelers in a meaningful game."
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published September 5, 2008 4:00 AM