Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey didn't dress for a second consecutive game because of a high-ankle sprain. Prized rookie right tackle Marcus Gilbert was benched for being late for a meeting last week or, as coach Mike Tomlin put it, "for being less than professional in his preparation." Then, on the Steelers' second play of the game Saturday against the St. Louis Rams, center Doug Legursky went down and out with a left shoulder strain.
What did quarterback Charlie Batch do to deserve this?
You might have heard something about Batch starting against the Rams in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger (high-ankle sprain).
When Batch walked to the line for the Steelers' third play, he couldn't have imagined the line in front of him in his worst nightmare. Veteran utilityman Trai Essex, who had started at left guard, was playing center for the first time in his career. Chris Kemoeatu was back at left guard, two weeks after being penalized three times in a game against the Cleveland Browns and earning something of a public tongue-lashing from Tomlin. Jonathan Scott, who previously was seen in the starting lineup against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3 when he couldn't handle the Colts' fierce pass rush, was at right tackle. Only left tackle Max Starks and right guard Ramon Foster were in their usual spots.
The Steelers were in big trouble, right?
Running back Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown. Rookie running back John Clay, playing in his first NFL game, scored a 10-yard touchdown on his first and still only NFL carry. Batch passed for 208 yards and wasn't sacked. There were no fumbled snaps.
The Steelers won, 27-0.
Who said trouble?
"I'm real proud of those guys up front," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "They knew what they had to do. We were down to two quarterbacks. We didn't want to play Ben. They knew they had to keep Charlie clean. They knew we had to run the ball ...
"It's the Steeler Way. Next Man Up."
Usually, Tomlin doesn't single out players for praise to the media. He made an exception with Essex. Moments earlier in the locker room, he had gathered the players, mentioned the "Next Man Up" standard and told them, "We have a saying around here, 'The more you can do, the more valuable you are to the team.' We had a guy playing out of position [Saturday] and playing out of his comfort zone. He performed way above the line." Then, he flipped the game ball to Essex.
You should have seen the big man grin when he recalled the moment.
"Since I've been here, I think he's only given out five or six game balls," Essex said, clearly amazed that he went home with one.
Essex really is a big man, though not nearly as big as he once was. He said he weighed 380 pounds when he attended Roethlisberger's wedding in July. "I was disgustingly heavy."
The Steelers coaches noticed. It was the first time they had seen Essex since last season because of the NFL lockout. They were reluctant to re-sign him as a free agent. The team didn't bring him back until late in the preseason, after he showed them he cared enough about his profession to get into shape. He said he weighs 330 now.
"That whole thing opened my eyes," Essex said. "It made me realize that if I want to play this game, I have to take care of my health and my conditioning ...
"Ben's wedding turned out to be the luckiest day of his life and the luckiest day of mine."
Essex wasn't feeling especially lucky when he saw Legursky go down. "For Doug to come out, I knew he must have been really hurting. He probably has the highest pain threshold of anyone I've ever played with. So I knew I had to step up. I was nervous as hell. I won't lie to you. My heart was beating 100 mph. I haven't had any problems changing positions during a game. But it's a lot harder going to center than it is going from guard to tackle or tackle to guard. Things look a little different at center. You have to see the whole field, and you have this big guy standing right in front of you."
Essex said he relaxed after he didn't botch any snaps with Batch. He clearly did his part to keep Batch from being sacked and to help the Steelers run for 169 yards against the NFL's worst run defense. He also completed an amazing feat: "I now have played every position on the line this season. Tight end and fullback, too. All I've got to do now is get in at quarterback and wide receiver."
Said Batch, who doesn't feel threatened by Essex in his position, "Trai was phenomenal."
The entire line was. Starks rebounded nicely from a bad game Monday night in San Francisco. Scott held his own against defensive end Chris Long, who came in with 13 sacks. Kemoeatu wasn't penalized once. The only penalty the line had was when Essex was late snapping the ball on a fourth-quarter play.
"Even with me at center, we were all on the same page," Essex said.
The results showed it.
Next Man Up, indeed.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.