Hartwig brought in as free-agent center after Mahan struggles with vital role
Center Justin Hartwig looks for the defense during morning workouts yesterday at Saint Vincent College. Hartwig is the newest free agent brought in to play the tradition-rich position in the Steelers' offensive line.
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The position is one of the grandest in team history, manned by just a few in the past four decades, but performed with such excellence that historians can't even come up with a better lineage at one position in the annals of the National Football League.
Playing center for the Steelers is like singing tenor in Carnegie Hall -- not many get to do it but those who have are the best at what they do. For 31 seasons, from 1975-2006, the Steelers employed only three centers -- Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings -- players who combined to make 14 All-Pro teams and be selected to 18 Pro Bowls.
Now they are looking at having that many different centers in the past three seasons.
The latest candidate is Justin Hartwig, signed as a free agent in the offseason after two injury-riddled seasons with the Carolina Panthers. He was brought in because the Steelers were dissatisfied with the performance of the center they signed to a five-year, $17 million contract after the 2006 season to replace the retired Hartings -- Sean Mahan.
The coaches think Hartwig is bigger (6 feet 5, 310 pounds) and tougher than Mahan, and better equipped to handle the bigger nose tackles that gave the Steelers so many fits last season.
"He's a bigger guy who has some strength and anchors pretty well," offensive line coach Larry Zierlein said. "He's a strong guy, a pretty physical guy."
The Steelers hope this experiment will work with Hartwig, who was signed to a two-year deal for $3,725,000. Like Hartings, a former guard who signed as a free agent in 2001 after playing five seasons with the Detroit Lions, Hartwig is a former tackle who spent six seasons in the NFL (four with the Tennessee Titans, two with the Panthers) before joining the Steelers.
For now, Hartwig has spent the first week of training camp alternating series with Mahan, who started all 17 games last season and usually begins practice as the first-team center. But, remember, the same thing happened last season when Mahan, despite his big contract, came to training camp as the No. 2 center and spent the first week playing behind Chukky Okobi.
"They basically told me they would open the spot back up for competition, that's why they brought me in," Hartwig said. "They watched me play, I started in the league the last five years, and they thought I could help the team out and potentially start. They didn't make me any promises. I was given an opportunity to come in and start, that's what it is. I felt good about what coach [Mike] Tomlin said. I'm not afraid of competition. That's the way it is every year."
Since Dawson, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, retired after the 2000 season, the Steelers have attempted to man the center position through free agency.
They haven't drafted a center who became a full-time starter since Webster, a fifth-round pick in 1974. Dawson was a guard at Kentucky when he was selected in the second round in 1988 and actually played alongside Webster on the offensive line his first season with the Steelers.
Since 1988, the Steelers have drafted only four centers -- Chuck Lanza (1988), Kendall Gammons (1992), Okobi (2001) and Drew Caylor (2004) -- none of whom were full-time starters.
"The center has a lot of responsibility on this offensive line," Hartwig said. "We're responsible for calling out the defense and the defensive personnel, the linebackers, who's doing what, declaring the defense, we're pretty much responsible for all the blocking calls. Everybody has their own individual calls, but the center sets the tone and decides how we block the play."
The Steelers will settle for Hartwig merely blocking the nose tackle -- something they weren't always able to do last season.
The problems began in Week 10 against the New York Jets when nose tackle Dewayne Robertson had 2 1/2 of the seven sacks against Ben Roethlisberger. Worse, the Steelers and their No. 1 running attack managed only 112 yards rushing on 33 attempts against the Jets, who, statistically, had the league's worst rush defense.
After the game, Tomlin was critical of the way his team failed to handle Robertson. Later, he noted that opposing nose tackles were creating problems for the Steelers by lining up directly over Mahan, making it difficult to get double-team blocks on them.
The Steelers are hoping Hartwig won't need double-team help. He has added 15 pounds since signing with the Steelers and he said his body feels good after two surgeries in his first season with the Panthers -- one for a hernia a month before the start of the regular season and another in November for a torn abductor that ended his season.
"I have watched some film with coach Zierlein in meetings, and we need to get better all the way around," Hartwig said. "Sean was in his first year last year and they had different breakdowns all over in protection.
"The thing people don't realize about the offensive line, when there are a lot of sacks, they want to blame it on the five guys up front. Obviously, there are times when guys get beat, but we have to protect as an offense. Every single person on offense has a responsibility. It's the collective group that needs to get it done."
But, with the Steelers, it all starts with the center.
First Published August 5, 2008 12:00 am