The Steelers sought the opinion and endorsement of their Pro Bowl center, Maurkice Pouncey, when they selected tackle Marcus Gilbert in the second round of the NFL draft. Pouncey and Gilbert were more than linemates at the University of Florida; they were good friends.
So, when Gilbert reported to training camp out of shape and injured his hamstring as a result, the Steelers got on Pouncey about his recommendation and leaned on him to light a fire under the 6-foot-6, 340-pound rookie.
It seems to be working.
"I told him this is a job and you don't have time to miss camp," Pouncey said. "You have to take advantage of the chances you get."
Gilbert could get a chance as big as his hulking frame when the Steelers play the Atlanta Falcons Saturday night at Heinz Field. Because of Jonathan Scott's knee injury, Gilbert could start at left tackle and play at least the first half with the rest of the starters-- an opportunity he relishes as he continues to earn back the good graces of the coaching staff.
"He's been on the come since a rocky beginning," coach Mike Tomlin said Thursday during an afternoon news conference at the team's South Side facility. "He's marched back relatively well, and we're pleased with what we've seen of him. But it must continue."
The Steelers have liked what they have seen of Gilbert in two preseason games, even though he made only a limited appearance against the Philadelphia Eagles after he replaced Scott and injured his left knee on his first series. That was not the case when he first reported to training camp, admittedly out of shape and performing at a speed that was not acceptable to the coaching staff.
Even Pouncey acknowledged that Gilbert might have thought he didn't have to work as hard because he was a high draft choice.
But Gilbert said he got a quick lesson about life in the NFL from his teammates -- that he needs to treat his job with the utmost urgency -- and the epiphany appears to be working.
"I came in and, first off, we didn't have [offseason training activities] and minicamp, and it was disadvantage for rookies," Gilbert said. "And, secondly, I didn't come in well-prepared and in shape. I didn't come in in the best of shape and I had an injury [hamstring], and it was kind of tough.
"That taught me a lesson. Now, I have to treat this game and play this game like a real professional out there and follow the veterans' role.
"A lot of players, especially the older guys in the offensive line room, they take their job really serious. That's what we do. That's our livelihood."
That attitude adjustment was enough for Pouncey, who is convinced his friend is back on the right track.
And that is encouraging news for the Steelers, who need depth at offensive tackle, especially if the experiment to use Tony Hills at right guard becomes a permanent move.
"He's on the come," said Pouncey, who became a starter and a Pro Bowl selection in his rookie season.
"He just has to keep coming out to practice better and better, and he'll get better from there. He's got some work to do, but he knows the offense. He missed a lot without OTAs and minicamp, but he's doing a great job."
The Steelers should be able to determine how far Gilbert has progressed against the Falcons, who have two of the top pass-rushing defensive ends in the league -- John Abraham and Ray Edwards, who was signed in free agency from the Minnesota Vikings. Should he start, Gilbert will line up against Abraham, who ranked fifth in the NFL with 13 sacks and was named All-Pro for the third time in 2010.
"It's a great opportunity ahead of me and all I have to do is take full advantage of it and gain the confidence of my teammates and coaches," Gilbert said. "I'm looking forward to getting an opportunity to play against great pass-rushers and give it all I have. Playing with the first unit is a good opportunity for me to show my ability and help the team win."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published August 26, 2011 4:00 AM