Cook: Through hard work, Steelers' Pouncey has earned trust

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Maybe it isn't the Sidney Crosby story. In June 2007, Penguins coach Mike Therrien made Crosby the youngest team captain in NHL history after just his second season in the league. Crosby wouldn't turn 20 for two months.

The Maurkice Pouncey story is impressive nonetheless. When Ben Roethlisberger was injured against the Kansas City Chiefs Nov. 12 and had to miss the next three games with a shoulder/rib injury, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin picked Pouncey to replace him as offensive captain. Pouncey is 23 and in his third NFL season.

"It's humbling to know I earned so much respect from my teammates and that the coaches have that much trust in me," Pouncey said last week.

Pouncey just might be the most respected, trusted player in the locker room.

"He's unbelievable," Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler said.

"A beast," offensive coordinator Todd Haley called him. "He's an All-Pro center. He could be an All-Pro guard if we played him there."

The Steelers did ask Pouncey to play left guard against the Baltimore Ravens Dec. 2 when starter Willie Colon couldn't go because of a knee injury. He was back at guard a week ago against the San Diego Chargers after Colon went down again in the second quarter. Tomlin has teased that Pouncey is so talented and so versatile that he might even use him at tackle in an emergency. At least he seemed to be teasing.

"If he asks me, I'll be right on out there," Pouncey said. "Whatever the team needs from me, I'm down for it."

If you're thinking Pouncey is impressive in this me-first, team-second era of professional sports, you aren't alone. He didn't hesitate leaving his comfort zone at center to play guard. The challenge of a new position didn't scare him. "You can ask him to make any block or execute any technique and he believes he can do it," Kugler said.

The Steelers' recent No. 1 draft picks haven't shined. Cam Heyward can't get on the field. Ziggy Hood has been a disappointment. Rashard Mendenhall ...

You know that sad story.

But the Steelers hit a home run with Pouncey in 2010. They like to think they're set at center -- or, yes, maybe guard one day -- for the next decade. They'll begin to find out today if they're in good shape at right guard when their No. 1 pick this spring -- David DeCastro -- makes his first NFL start against the Dallas Cowboys. Ramon Foster will move to left guard, enabling Pouncey to stay at center.

"He's going to be a great guard," Pouncey said of DeCastro. "He can move people around. He can pull. He's a good pass-protector. He had a tough [knee] injury, but he fought his [behind] off to get back. I can't wait to see what he can do."

DeCastro is smart enough to watch and learn from Pouncey. So are older veterans such as Colon and Max Starks. Even Kugler, who said, "I learn as much from him as he learns from me."

Pouncey's work ethic has become legendary in the Steelers locker room in a short time. "A relentless worker," Kugler called him. "It's his energy. I've never seen him have a bad day. He's so positive. If I'm having a bad day, I spend five minutes with him and he brings me up."

All of the Steelers could use a lift from Pouncey. They have lost three of their past four games and hardly look like a playoff team let alone a Super Bowl contender. The offensive line struggled in the nasty home loss to the Chargers, failing to convert two third-and-1s and a fourth-and-1 with running plays. Tomlin and a number of players admitted the team wasn't ready for the game. Mendenhall was suspended for the Cowboys game because of conduct detrimental to the team. Mike Wallace talked of lacking focus at times.

A team in crisis?

"We'll be fine," Pouncey said. "I know these guys. I've worked with them, sweated with them, bled with them. They're going to stand up, not back down."

It's especially important to Pouncey for the Steelers to extend the season into January. He missed the Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers with an ankle injury. Because of the NFL lockout that followed, he couldn't get treatment and train at the Steelers facility during the winter, spring and summer. He played most of last season before his ankle "just wore out," forcing him to miss the final two regular-season games and the playoff loss to the Denver Broncos. He had surgery a few days later to stabilize the ankle and remove bone spurs.

"I feel great now," Pouncey said. "Like I never hurt it in the first place."

That's good news for the Steelers.

"I think missing those games drives him," Kugler said. "He wants to be a big contributor to the team in the big games."

Pouncey said he owes it to his teammates. "I'm building a relationship with these guys that will last a lifetime. I'm building family beyond my family." Pouncey said he also owes it to Steelers management and the coaches. "I love playing for this organization. They blessed me with the opportunity to do everything I've wanted to do since I was a little kid. I just love ball. There's nothing else I'd rather do. I'm going to enjoy this wave for as long as I can."

Pouncey is right. The Steelers gave him his chance. But something else is just as clear. Pouncey has made the most of it. He makes the most of it every day."

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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