Offensive line injuries plague another season for Steelers



Todd Haley was standing on the practice field the other day when rookie quarterback Landry Jones took one look at the Steelers' patchwork offensive line and asked him, "Is this normal for injuries in the NFL?"

Haley, the team's offensive coordinator who has been in the NFL for almost 20 years, could only chuckle.

"No," Haley said. "It's not normal."

It only appears that way for the Steelers.

Injuries on their offensive line have become as commonplace as counter plays and pocket protection. Keeping the unit intact for long stretches of the season, let alone an entire season, has become increasingly more difficult, especially in the past four years.

Why?

Nobody seems to know. Whether coincidence or bad luck, or because the players are much bigger and perhaps unable to move quicker, injuries have stockpiled like cardboard boxes on the Steelers offensive line.

In the past four years alone, the Steelers have started 30 different offensive line combinations, including 10 in an injury-ravaged 2011 season. In the six seasons before that, beginning with Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004, the Steelers used only 19.

Today, they will not only start their seventh different line combination when they play the Miami Dolphins (6-6) at Heinz Field, they could have three different starters on the line from the previous game in Baltimore because of injuries. Included in that is their third center who will make his first professional start, Cody Wallace.

"Honestly, I have no explanation," said guard Ramon Foster, who has played on a bad ankle after missing a start against the Detroit Lions. "We're not the only offensive line that has had these types of problems this year. It happens, you can say, more often than not, but we have to deal with it."

The Steelers are getting good at dealing with it, mostly because they have had to.

"I've never seen an offensive line have so many injuries year after year like they've had," former Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.

All too familiar situation

Roethlisberger has not been sacked in the past two games and just once in the past three. The running game has shown gradual improvement, averaging 4 yards per carry against the Ravens and even managing to get a breakout run of 43 yards from Le'Veon Bell, their longest this season.

But in a game the Steelers (5-7) almost surely have to win to remain in contention for the AFC's second wild-card spot, they will face the Dolphins with a center who has never started an NFL game, a left tackle who is getting a second chance at redemption and possibly a right guard who has played every position on the line this season except center.

If that's not troublesome enough, the Dolphins like to pressure the quarterback with their defensive linemen, getting 20½ sacks from the trio of defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Jared Odrick, like Wake a former Penn State standout.

"It's one of those things you can't control," Foster said. "It's part of football. Injuries are going to happen. All we can do is keep our heads up and go to work."

The Steelers will be without center Fernando Velasco, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in Baltimore and was placed on injured reserve, where he joins the center he was signed to replace, All-Pro Maurkice Pouncey. They also will be without left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who has started the past eight games since replacing an ineffective Mike Adams. In his place, Adams gets a second chance to make good and prove that his selection as a second-round draft pick was not a mistake. Adams, though, will play with a bad left ankle that caused him to be removed from the Ravens game, too.

What's more, guard David DeCastro is expected to start, but how long he can go after his foot was sprained in Baltimore remains to be seen. If he can't play, DeCastro will be replaced by veteran Guy Whimper, who would make his third start this season. DeCastro and Velasco have been the team's best offensive linemen all season.

While playing without three starters on the offensive line is the most extreme situation they've faced this season, it is all part of what the Steelers have had to deal with since Pouncey was lost for the year just eight plays into the opening game.

They haven't gone more than three games with the same offensive line. And the only lineman to start every game is right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

And that doesn't even count what happened to Levi Brown, who got hurt before he ever played a game with the Steelers.

Brown was acquired in a rare midseason trade Oct. 5 with the Arizona Cardinals to help solidify the left tackle, a position left in disarray after Adams' early season struggles. The fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft, Brown sustained a torn triceps tendon injury in warm-ups before his first game in a Steelers uniform and was placed on injured reserve.

It is all part of why the Steelers have had just three games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards and have gone 20 games without a 100-yard rusher, the longest drought in the league.

"You have to take the cards dealt to you and do the best you can," Haley said. "Generally, teams that are able to stay healthy up front are usually the teams that end up getting some wins, if they are any good. You have to be good to begin with, but we've been shuffling guys and having to deal with some of that as the season has gone on. I think that those guys have stood up and done an admirable job."

This is nothing new for the Steelers.

In 2012, only one offensive lineman started every game and that was left tackle Max Starks. They never went more than five games in a row with the same offensive line and used seven different starting combinations throughout the season

In 2011, the Steelers started a different combination for the first six games and 10 overall -- the most since Roethlisberger has been quarterback. They never went more than four games with the same starting five and didn't have any lineman start every game. Still, they finished 12-4.

It wasn't much different in 2010, either, when they went to the Super Bowl. Only one lineman, right tackle Flozell Adams, who was signed after starter Willie Colon tore his Achilles tendon working out right before training camp, started every game. The Steelers started seven different combinations, but they were able to use the same combination at the right time -- for the final seven games and both playoff victories against the Ravens and New York Jets that propelled them to Super Bowl XLV. Pouncey, though, was injured in the AFC championship and did not play in the Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers

"It's a shame what's happened to their offensive line," said Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. "I was thinking back to when we played in the '70s and I don't ever remember that happening. Seems like they've had their share of bad luck."

Just down on their luck?

If one game in recent Steelers history stands out for injuries decimating the offensive line, it was a 17-14 loss Oct. 12, 2003, in Denver.

The Steelers used eight different linemen in any number of different combinations, including moving Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca to tackle, to slow the Broncos pass rush. Quarterback Tommy Maddox was sacked seven times and the Steelers averaged 2.8 yards on 30 rushing attempts that game.

That has become something of a common occurrence this season.

In their 21-18 loss Oct. 27 in Oakland and again in their 22-20 loss Thanksgiving night to the Ravens, the Steelers used all eight offensive linemen because of injuries.

"It's almost part of the game," Foster said. "They are football injuries. It's not like guys are doing crazy stuff most of the time. It's on the field. You just attribute that to play."

It wasn't always this way.

In 2004, Roethlisberger's rookie season, the Steelers started the same offensive line every game. Not surprisingly, they finished 15-1 and went to the AFC title game.

The following year, four linemen -- Faneca, center Jeff Hartings, right guard Kendall Simmons and right tackle Max Starks -- started every game. The only switch came when left tackle Marvel Smith missed four starts and played only one series in Indianapolis because of a back/neck injury and was replaced by Trai Essex.

But in 2006, only two linemen -- Faneca and Smith -- started every game. The Steelers never went more than five consecutive games with the same starting offensive line. They used six different combinations in an 8-8 season.

At the time, though, that was an aberration. In 2007 and again in 2009, the Steelers had four linemen start every game. In each season, they went 10 games in a row with the same starting combination.

It was after the 2009 season that the Steelers began to be jinxed with injuries on the offensive line.

They are not alone this year.

The New York Giants, another team that has tried to rebound from a horrendous start (0-6), will start their seventh different line combination for a game today in San Diego because of injuries. Like the Steelers, the Giants have lost two centers to season-ending injuries -- David Baas and his replacement, Jim Cordle.

Only left tackle Will Beatty and rookie right tackle Justin Pugh have started every game at the same position.

Kevin Boothe has started every game, but he has played two games at center and 10 at left guard.

Why so many injuries?

Former Pro Bowl tackle Tunch Ilkin doesn't think it's all bad luck.

"Offensive linemen don't come off the ball like they used to and, because there's so much lateral blocking, they're coming off at the same level and everyone is congregating at the same area," Ilkin said, adding that it is only his opinion. "And because they're all 300-pound-plus, 330 pounds, I don't think they can get their legs out of the way fast enough."

Ilkin also said the limited number of padded practices in training camp and the regular season does not prepare linemen for the speed and physical pounding of a game.

"They're not prepared for the torque on their bodies," he said. "When you're going hard all the time, your body is more prepared physically."

Either that, or they need a rabbit's foot.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com or Twitter @gerrydulac.

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