Offensive Line: Steelers' blockers choose to meet on own time

More meetings pay off in improvement


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Football players always have meetings. Team meetings, offensive and defensive meetings, meetings with their position coach, special teams meetings, pregame meetings.

Meetings, meetings, meetings. So why would any football players want more meetings on their own time?

That is precisely what the Steelers' offensive linemen have done. They meet once, sometimes twice a week at night for two hours each session at center Justin Hartwig's house, and it's not to play video games.

They watch movies, i.e., tapes of their next opponent.

"It was a collection of guys who came together and thought about it,'' left tackle Max Starks said. "We just came up with it ourselves. It was just something we wanted to do. We started it a little bit later in the season, the second time we played Baltimore. We thought it was advantageous for us and help us out as a unit to get closer."

Linemen generally are the closest units on and off the field of any football team. They're the blue-collar guys, the ones who never get votes for MVP or offensive players of the year. And this year, the Steelers' offensive linemen are as close as they get off the field as they circled the wagons to ward off all the brickbats thrown their way.

Perhaps no offensive line of a 12-4 team with a No. 2 playoff seed has been more disparaged. They have taken the blame for all of Ben Roethlisberger's 46 sacks and the offense's decline to a No. 23 ranking in the run game, the second lowest in their AFC history.

But it's not like they're not trying -- or not getting better because of it. The weekly meetings are part of it.

"We're starting to click. and I think we're hitting our stride at the right point of the season going into the playoffs," right guard Darnell Stapleton said.

This season was the first time the Steelers have not had a Pro Bowl offensive lineman in the past eight seasons and only the third in the past 17. One, because guard Alan Faneca made the past seven Pro Bowls and the other because center Dermontti Dawson made seven.

One problem this season for the line is that Faneca made an eighth Pro Bowl this season, as a guard with the New York Jets, where he signed as a free agent.

Yank one possible future Hall of Fame guard out of the lineup, add a new center, two new guards and, in essence, a new left tackle and what you have is a line that has taken a long time to learn to play together.

Hartwig signed as a free agent to become the Steelers' third starting center in three seasons. Chris Kemoeatu became a starter for the first time for Faneca at left guard. Starting right guard Kendall Simmons was lost in the fourth game with a ruptured Achilles, and replaced by Stapleton. And Starks, their starting right tackle in 2005 and 2006, took over in the sixth game for Marvel Smith, who had back surgery and was placed on injured reserve.

Only Willie Colon, who beat out Starks for the job at right tackle in 2007, has remained in place from last season.

"One of the biggest things is, unlike any other position on the football field, an offensive line has to operate as one," Starks said. "Generally, you see the most cohesive offensive lines are ones who spent the most time together.

"For us, we've had injuries and guys have filled in. That usually messes with the chemistry and harmony of an offensive line."

How have they done lately? Pretty well against the Cleveland Browns in the final game of the season. Could it be they have made steady improvement and it all came together against Cleveland?

"We did pretty well the week before,'' coach Mike Tomlin said this week. "We'll see what happens. All I'm concerned about is their performance. If criticism motivates them, then keep criticizing them."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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