Ron Cook: Injuries to offensive line put hurt on Big Ben



Let's assume you are the greatest Steelers fan in the world. If Cody Wallace knocks on your door Thursday night and says, "Trick or treat!" will you know who he is? Even if he isn't wearing a mask?

I'm not sure Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recognizes Wallace, but there Wallace was Sunday, staring across the huddle at him during the 21-18 loss to the Oakland Raiders. A week after buried-on-the-depth-chart offensive lineman Guy Whimper played his first snaps of the season in the win against the Baltimore Ravens, the buried-deeper Wallace played for the first time because of injuries to guards Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Whimper. Yes, the situation was that dire. Wallace didn't even get a hat for the first five games, yet had to play 38 snaps against the Raiders, first at left guard after Foster and Whimper were hurt, then at right guard after DeCastro left.

It was absolute chaos in the second half.

Mike Adams, who was a third, blocking tight end early in the game, had to play left tackle. Kelvin Beachum, who started at left tackle, had to move to left guard. Wallace played both guard spots. Only center Fernando Velasco and right tackle Marcus Gilbert played the entire game at their position.

And you're wondering why the Steelers lost and are nearly dead in the NFL waters with a 2-5 record?

"It's OK for me to have all the belief, faith and trust in the world that all of those guys will do a great job -- and I do," Roethlisberger said afterward.

"But it's got to be tough on them. We were moving guys all over. They were playing positions where they haven't practiced. We never practice with them in those spots because you don't expect those [injuries] to happen like that."

Foster played 15 snaps against the Raiders before leaving with a concussion. Whimper took over at left guard and played 19 snaps before going out with a left knee injury. DeCastro lasted 42 before injuring his right ankle. He came back in the game on the next series for two plays but couldn't keep going.

Roethlisberger -- the best friend a lineman ever had because of his unwavering support -- paid a big price. He was sacked five times, a number that easily could have been 10 if not for his size, strength and best-in-the-NFL escapability. It was just a week earlier that Ravens coach John Harbaugh called him the biggest, strongest, toughest quarterback in the league. On one occasion, the Raiders ripped the jersey off Roethlisberger's back -- literally -- without getting him down. At the end, he was left sitting on a stool in front of his locker, a bag of ice on his right knee, a gash out of the back of his left arm and welts all over his body.

Sadly for him, it was just another routine day at the office. He has been sacked 26 times in seven games, a greater pace than when he went down a career-high 50 times in 2009.

Running back Le'Veon Bell wasn't in much better shape. In the win against the Ravens, he ran for 93 of the Steelers' 141 rushing yards, the only game all season in which they rushed the ball effectively. This time, he had 24 of their 35 rushing yards. There was nowhere to run.

Then, there's the no-huddle offense that Roethlisberger loves but seldom gets to use. Former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians hesitated to run it because his then-young wide receivers weren't sure of the plays. Now, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has to be careful with it because of the constantly changing offensive line. If Whimper or Wallace doesn't get a play call, Roethlisberger could be knocked into next week.

This isn't meant to put the blame for the loss to the Raiders on Wallace, who actually graded out fairly well -- especially in pass-blocking -- according to Pro Football Focus, which analyzes the play of each NFL player. Gilbert received the highest grade, followed by DeCastro and Adams. Beachum was graded the lowest after allowing two sacks and five hurries.

The point here is the Steelers haven't had this sort of offensive line mess -- best I can remember -- since the 2003 season. Because of injury and ineffectiveness, former coach Bill Cowher tried just about everyone but offensive line coach Russ Grimm during a loss at Denver. The old Washington Redskins Hog would have been an improvement even at 44 and seriously overweight. Things were so bad that day that Pro Bowler Alan Faneca alternated positions during each series. In running situations, he played left guard. In passing situations, he was at left tackle.

Now that was serious chaos.

Things might get worse this season before they get better, depending on how serious DeCastro's and Foster's injuries are. It's probably too late for the Steelers to save the season even if the two linemen can play Sunday at New England. But the team has no chance if they are out for any length of time. The Steelers can't keep going further down the depth chart and expect to win.

Of course, coach Mike Tomlin doesn't see it that way.

"All of these guys are professional and capable men. ... We're not going to make excuses. Those guys with a helmet are capable of being a part of the reason why we win."

Sounds good, right?

Tomlin has been saying the same thing since Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey started the line's problems by going down on the eighth play of the season against Tennessee with a serious knee injury.

It doesn't change the bottom line, though.

In this case, Tomlin is delusional.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. 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.


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