Zierlein makes good calls

Zierlein no longer has to play What's My Line?

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The new line coach had a couple of things working against him from the start; he wasn't Russ Grimm and he could not have made a worse first impression.

The left tackle was coming off a bad year, at least for him. The left guard was supposed to pout about his contract and his impending free agency. The center was brought in from Tampa Bay and paid a lot of money, much to everyone's surprise, especially Chukky Okobi's. The right guard was benched briefly last season for Chris Kemoeatu. The right tackle had all of two NFL starts. The coaches couldn't decide on the starters until late in the exhibition season.

What was there to like about the Steelers' offensive line a month ago? Not much, really.

That was then.

This is now:

The Steelers are 3-0 going into their game at Arizona Sunday. They have the NFL's top rusher, Willie Parker, and the most rushing yards, 198.3 per game, nearly 90 more than the league average. They have allowed just four sacks, one when right tackle Willie Colon was beaten by Cleveland linebacker Antwan Peek, another when right guard Kendall Simmons was whipped by San Francisco linebacker Hannibal Navies, a third on a coverage sack against Buffalo and a fourth when the 49ers came with a blitz from safety Michael Lewis. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had time to throw for six touchdowns and only one interception.

What is there to like about the Steelers' line now?

Just about everything.

"We're a physical line, a smart line," center Sean Mahan said.

"We're the engine of the offense," Simmons said. "If we don't do our thing, Willie and Ben can't do theirs."

Mahan, who's dinged up with a bum knee but is expected to play at Arizona, won the job at training camp, beating out Okobi, who's now with Arizona. Simmons didn't just hold off Kemoeatu; he signed a new $23.1 million deal. Colon beat out Max Starks, who started in Super Bowl XL. Left tackle Marvel Smith has bounced back in a big way. And left guard Alan Faneca ...

"If I'm out there thinking about my contract, I'm not going to be able to block my man," he said.

Faneca has been crushing his man, mostly.

"Watching him, you have no idea he has any kind of issue," line coach Larry Zierlein said. "No one works harder in the meeting room. No one studies harder or practices harder. He's as locked in as anyone you'll ever see."

Zierlein deserves a lot of credit for his work with this group. He stepped into a tough spot, replacing the respected, popular Grimm, who was publicly endorsed by the Steelers' veteran linemen to replace coach Bill Cowher before the job went to Mike Tomlin. Grimm moved on to Arizona as line coach/assistant head coach, adding to the intrigue surrounding the game Sunday.

Zierlein didn't make things any easier for himself early on when he hit a wrong button on his computer and sent a dirty little e-mail all over the NFL. It was no big deal -- "I know I didn't do anything wrong intentionally," he said -- but who wants to be the national joke of the day?

Good thing for the Steelers that didn't stop Zierlein from earning his players' respect.

"I liked how Coach Z came in," Simmons said. "He didn't try to change everything that we do. He did a nice job compromising with us. It was like, 'We're going to work together. You guys work with me on trying to incorporate some of these new things, and I'll work with you on what you like to do and do best.' I liked that. I think all of us did."

Zierlein, who has been coaching for 38 years, might not be much of a computer genius, but he's clearly no dummy.

"I didn't want to come in and make wholesale changes," he said. "I changed some technique things, but there was no need to change the system. I looked at how the players did things and I tried to learn their words, their lingo. Their system didn't need fixed. It's not like the wheel was broken.

"Russ did a good job here."

Faneca, Simmons and Smith will make it a point to visit with Grimm on the field Sunday. They know he made them better players, made them a lot of money, helped them to get their Super Bowl rings two years ago.

"Even though he's gone now, I'm sure he's excited in his own little way about how well we're doing," said Colon, a second-year pro who had just one season with Grimm.

"I'm sure it's almost like he's a proud papa watching us from a distance."

Grimm isn't so far away that he doesn't know the truth:

There really is a lot to like about this Steelers' line.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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