Segments of Steelers offensive line are connecting
June 19, 2014 11:33 PM
Steelers offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster take part in minicamp Thursday on the South Side.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With the makings of what could be their best offensive line in years, those manning it for the Steelers have developed a motto.
"Stay consistent, keep our heads down and work like we're in last place," said guard Ramon Foster, the veteran of the bunch at 28.
That motto might be easy to adopt after consecutive 8-8 seasons, and because the linemen have had to keep their heads down to avoid all the brickbats hurled their way over the years.
Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones discusses defense
Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones talks about defense on the last day of mini-camp on the South Side. (Video by Matt Freed; 6/19/2014)
No area of the football team has carried more blame for more things over the past decade than the offensive line. Even when they made it to their past two Super Bowls, they were ripped.
The signs this spring, which officially ended for the Steelers with their last day of minicamp Thursday, are different. The unit in which the Steelers have invested so many high draft picks the past several years suddenly looks as if it can be their best since the days when Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith and Jeff Hartings were dominant Pro Bowl players. You have to go back a few years.
Darnell Stapleton has been here this week helping out with the offensive line as an intern coach. There's a trivia question with Stapleton as the answer: Who was the starting right guard in the Steelers' most recent Super Bowl-winning season?
It was the only year he played in the NFL.
The Steelers wanted to pump up the volume in their line. After drafting two linemen in the first round and two in the second over the past several years, they look to have accomplished their goal.
There is a dichotomy in all of this, however, because 40 percent of their starting line, their left side, were afterthoughts. Foster wasn't drafted and starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum was a seventh-round pick in 2012. Other starters are center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro, both first-round picks, and second-rounder Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.
"We are the non-pedigree side,'' Foster said. "That's the pedigree side and we're the hard-working side. There's a lot of stuff we joke about. We always say that the screens go to their side, but the protection, he can trust us on the left side. It's in good fun."
The "he" is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who benefits most from having a good line. Many NFL coaches and personnel will proclaim that after the quarterback, the next most important position is the left tackle, who protects the quarterback's blind side when he drops back to pass.
You usually do not find those players in the draft's seventh round and they usually are much bigger than 6 feet 3, 300 pounds, but that is what Beachum is. And make no mistake, the Steelers ended spring activities with Beachum having a solid grip on the left tackle job.
"Beach has done very well, I'm proud of the kid,'' Foster said.
Beachum is a modern-day Tunch Ilkin. For those who know Ilkin only as part of the Steelers broadcast crew, he was a Pro Bowl right tackle who played at 265 pounds. Even in his days in the 1980s and early 1990s that was light.
Ilkin was a technique guru even after his playing days. He was in demand for a number of years by NFL and college teams to teach the art of hand work. He has consistently stated that size is overrated for offensive linemen and that technique is more important.
Beachum has been one of his students. Ilkin has worked with him using mitts on their hands and they talk often about technique.
"It's more the punching aspect,'' Beachum says.
Beachum, Foster and the rest of them are thrilled with their new line coach, Mike Munchak, who made the Hall of Fame as a guard and has coached the line most years since then.
Munchak is big on technique, so that is right up Beachum's alley. Unlike some coaches who might let jealousy get in the way, Munchak welcomes all input from Ilkin, who was from his playing era.
"He's even mentioned having Tunch come in if we have extra time to do some extra work,'' Beachum said. "He's referred to it multiple times. Munch is about using every single resource possible to better you as a player and finding a way to succeed."
That's kind of how Beachum and Foster approach the game, doing everything they can because, after all, they never sniffed the penthouse that is the top of the draft. Foster said it's used as motivation.
"Absolutely, because you get less money than everybody else,'' Foster said. "It's easier to let you go. And once you get your position, you know you can be replaced at a quicker rate than a high draft pick.
"There's definitely a sense of urgency with Beach and myself until this day. We always want to hold onto it as long as we can. That's one thing I noticed Beach picked up early in his career. He won the position and he's not looked back at all. I admire that about him."
The Steelers might have an offensive line everyone can soon admire, those with the pedigrees and those who work hard.
■ Mike Tomlin said he excused linebacker Jason Worilds from Thursday's final minicamp practice after he went through the first two this week.
■ The Steelers officially ended their organized practices but some players say they will continue to stay in town to work on things, including second-year quarterback Landry Jones.
■ Tomlin said linebacker Sean Spence, trying to come back from a terrible knee injury that has put him on the shelf the past two seasons, showed no reason through spring practices that he cannot go through a full training camp.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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