Slowly, patiently, the Steelers reconstructed an offensive line from a team weakness into what they consider a team strength, and now that it is, they plan to keep it together for a while.
Their latest move is to draw closer to signing right tackle Marcus Gilbert to a new contract before their self-imposed deadline, which is the first regular-season game. They signed center Maurkice Pouncey to a new six-year, $46 million contract in June before he could enter the final year of his rookie deal, and it appears they also will do so with Gilbert.
“No deal is signed yet, but I’m confident it’s going to get done,” Gilbert said shortly after talking to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who is negotiating the new deal with the Steelers.
Their other three starters on the line all are signed through the 2015 season: tackle Kelvin Beachum and guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro. Beachum and DeCastro still are in their 2012 rookie contracts, and the Steelers can exercise the option on DeCastro for 2016 next year.
“It feels good to know that you are wanted by this organization,” Gilbert said.
Other than Foster, Gilbert has played and started in more Steelers games since 2011 than any other lineman. A second-round draft pick from Florida in 2011, Gilbert moved into the starting lineup in the second game of the season, the first Steelers rookie to start a game at tackle in five years. He went on to start 13 games that season. He started the first five of 2012 before an ankle injury ended the rest of his season.
He returned to start 16 games at right tackle last season, the only offensive lineman who started every game.
For the first time in years, the offensive line seems to be strong and stable, and that is how it played for the two series it was on the field Saturday against the New York Giants.
“It was pretty good to go out there and get off to a fast pace, a fast start,” Gilbert said. “That was important to us, to set a tone. Last year, when we came out, knowing it was preseason and we knew the amount of plays we were going to play, we were kind of lackadaisical. This year there was more a sense of urgency. We wanted to come out and prove a point.”
A buck in the system
Lawrence Timmons has played often and at several positions since the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2007, and now he has a new one.
Timmons, who has played inside linebacker and outside linebacker (in emergencies), switched between the mac and the buck inside positions last season. This year, he will play the buck on an every-down basis.
Basically, the buck linebacker stays inside, close to the line of scrimmage. He takes on more offensive line blocks and his responsibility leans more toward stopping the run. The mac can play more on the outside, has a little more freedom to roam and more coverage responsibility.
Think of Levon Kirkland and Larry Foote as the classic buck linebackers. When Foote was lost with an injury in the opener last season, Timmons played his buck role on passing downs, but stayed at the mac on first and second downs when rookie Vince Williams played the buck.
But the speed and quickness of rookie Ryan Shazier leans favorably toward playing the mac, thus Timmons’ move to the buck full time.
“It was an adjustment,” Timmons said. “The mac is similar, it’s just that I’m taking on the inside more, instead of me being the mac on the outside. I hit the O-linemen a whole lot more; I’m in the box more.”
Although he now will have those collisions with the big linemen more often, Timmons said he actually lost a little weight rather than gain some for a position Kirkland once manned at around 275 pounds. They list Timmons as 6 feet 1, 234 pounds, and he says he’s not worried about any more wear and tear the move will bring. Timmons has played in 53 consecutive games, more than any player on the roster.
“You’re an inside linebacker, you are going to get wear and tear. I have O-linemen confrontations all the time. It comes with the job.”
One thing that no longer will happen is him moving to outside linebacker the way he did in 2011 four times for the injured James Harrison.
“That’s over,” Timmons declared. “I’m strictly an inside guy.”
While it has generated much discussion, particularly after their problems scoring touchdowns in the red zone last season, the Steelers’ failure to find the end zone on their first drive Saturday night has few on the team concerned.
They want to improve on last season, but that one drive proved little. Not only were they not game-planning against the Giants, they did not want quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw a pass in his first game. That excluded what they consider a running play, the screen pass that rookie Dri Archer turned into a 46-yard gain.
That gave them a first down at the 14. Consecutive runs by LeGarrette Blount picked up 7 yards, then Roethlisberger tossed an incomplete fade pass to Lance Moore on what was a run-pass option.
Under normal circumstances, Roethlisberger probably would not be throwing a fade pass to the 5-9 Moore and the 6-5 Heath Miller would not stay in and block as he did.
“Obviously in a normal week, we’ll put more work and more detail into the red zone,” Miller said. “But that is certainly a trend we do not want to start, not finishing off our drives. Hopefully we’ll be able to do it this week.”
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.