Cook: Kugler invaluable to Steelers

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FORT WORTH, Texas -- The Steelers' MVP?

Easy.

Offensive line coach Sean Kugler.

It has to be Kugler, right?

OK, relax. I'm not talking about the Most Valuable Player. The Steelers voted that honor to deserving safety Troy Polamalu. I'm thinking Kugler is the team's Most Valuable Person. Go ahead, try talking me out of it. You can't. There's no way, especially if the Steelers beat the Green Bay Packers Sunday night in Super Bowl XLV with backup center Doug Legursky starting in place of injured Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey.

I mentioned this to Kugler the other day at one of the Steelers' media sessions. He looked at me as if I were from Mars. "I find that amusing," he said, snickering. "I haven't played one snap all season."

That doesn't mean Kugler won't have a big say in which team wins the big game at Cowboys Stadium. A lot of people are saying his line -- especially without Pouncey -- is no match for the Green Bay Packers' stout front seven. Of course, a lot of those same people said the Steelers wouldn't make it to the Super Bowl with that line.

What do they know?

"They're survivors," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of his offensive linemen.

Overachievers, too.

Kugler, still humble, says it has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the "unbelievable effort" the linemen give every day to get better. "It's a wonderful group. I'll tell them I can't wait to get to work to be with them. I know they're going to give me everything they have. I can't ask for more."

That's true, all true. The linemen are a proud bunch. They're not interested in credit and shrug off their critics like flies. They're too busy putting their hands in the pile -- a popular Tomlinism -- to pay attention to the barbs. Anyway, they know they're better -- at least collectively -- than the critics say.

But don't underestimate Kugler's role here. Someone has to coach 'em up, right? It's hard to imagine any NFL assistant doing a better job than Kugler this season. "An awesome job," Tomlin called it.

When Kugler was hired by the Steelers after the 2009 season, his projected starting lineup for the '10 season was left tackle Max Starks, left guard Chris Kemoeatu, center Justin Hartwig, right guard Trai Essex and right tackle Willie Colon. The line that will start against the Packers is, from left to right, Jonathan Scott, Kemoeatu, Legursky, Ramon Foster and Flozell Adams.

Kugler has been a magician.

Colon was lost for the season before training camp with an Achilles injury. Hartwig was beaten out in the exhibition season by the precocious Pouncey -- "the best rookie I've ever been around," Tomlin said -- and released. Essex missed four games with an ankle injury, then lost his starting job to Foster. Starks was finished for the season after a neck injury in Cincinnati Nov. 8.

Kemoeatu, Pouncey and Adams are the Steelers' only linemen who played exclusively at their positions. Scott played both tackles and at left guard. Foster played both guards and at right tackle. Essex played every position but center. Legursky played center and both guards and took the occasional rep as a blocking fullback.

Kugler made it all sound a lot easier than it was for three reasons:

• Every lineman bought into Tomlin's "standard-is-the-standard" preaching. "They really emphasize it here," Kugler said. "All the players see it. None of 'em want to be the one who disappoints when they step in."

• Every offensive player, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accepts and welcomes the replacement guys as legitimate starters. "They all believe in each other," Kugler said. "They play for each other."

• The injured starters aren't threatened by their replacements. To the contrary, they take on the role of assistant coach and try to help them. "I'll be in the meeting room and I'll see Max Starks in the corner talking to Jonathan Scott or I'll see Willie Colon talking to Maurkice and Legursky. That's really neat to me. You don't get that with every team."

All three elements will be in play Sunday night. Legursky doesn't want to let his teammates down as Pouncey's replacement, not now, not in this game. The other players will rally around Legursky. "There's no doubt that Doug will do just as good a job, if not better than Pouncey," Adams said, flatly. And Pouncey will be on the sideline for Legursky, another pair of eyes -- along with Kugler's -- to watch what's happening with the Packers defense and to make suggestions.

"I'm lucky to have this job," Kugler said. "If you're in coaching and you get a chance to work for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you've reached the pinnacle of your profession. The success this organization has year after year, the physical, blue-collar style that it plays ... If you're an offensive line coach, this is the only place to be. I've got the greatest job in the world. I really am very fortunate."

Almost as fortunate as the Steelers are to have Kugler.

Their MVP.


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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