Steelers' Essex makes smooth switch to right guard
Steelers guard Trai Essex, left, blocks guard Kraig Urbik during drills at Latrobe High School Stadium last night.
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The Steelers' offensive line has a new starter, again. His name is Trai Essex and, while injuries to two other starting linemen hastened his rise, he had a bead on it anyway.
Last night, coach Mike Tomlin said that Stapleton had exploratory surgery and might miss only a couple weeks.
If and when he returns, it is unlikely he will get his old job back at right guard. Essex will become the eighth designated starting offensive lineman, other than injury fill-ins, since the start of last season, the fifth new one, and the third starting right guard. That is, provided all five make it to the start of the season.
Don't hold that against Essex. He turned down decent offers as a free agent this March from the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans to accept a decent offer from the Steelers and a promise. His coaches told him he would get an opportunity to compete for the starting right guard job.
Voila! He has been running with the first team since camp opened because Stapleton had to move to center as Justin Hartwig recovers from an offseason toe injury."
"It's coming to fruition right now, with me getting this opportunity to compete at right guard," Essex said. "Everything's looking like it's starting to come into place."
Of course, he does not enjoy Stapleton's predicament, but he also believes the offensive line can continue to build on the cohesiveness it needed while going through a transition with four new starters last season.
Essex has been around. This is his fifth season after the Steelers drafted him in the third round from Northwestern in 2005. He is one of those 21 players with two Super Bowl rings. He has played well whenever he was thrust into the lineup -- four starts at left tackle in '05, one in the playoffs in '07, and then last season at Jacksonville for an injured Marvel Smith.
He did not play much guard until last year, when he practiced at both positions and played briefly for Stapleton against San Diego in November. It was the first time he played guard, and the first time he played on the right side. Now, he's doing both, for a while longer, he hopes.
"I want to keep my position, but nothing's set in stone yet," Essex said.
Because he practiced at guard last season and because he has been with the team so long, Essex's emergence should not upset the chemistry the line has worked to develop, their coach said. Essex, according to line coach Larry Zierlein, has worked enough with right tackle Willie Colon and center Justin Hartwig to have the communication that is needed between them.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem. And, once we get Justin back in, we'll have the crew we had last year with the exception of Darnell."
Essex has lost some weight, to 337, but purposely strengthened his legs because he will have to move out some of the game's better nose tackles in the AFC North.
His progress in earlier years with the Steelers was retarded somewhat when he showed up for training camp in what the coaches felt was not the best shape.
"Trai is a very athletic guy and, when he said he wanted to gain more strength and power, that's a really important thing inside in this league, being a strong guy," Zierlein noted.
Essex sees the line getting better, not more disrupted.
"I think the sky's the limit with us. We have all the pieces of the puzzle, all we have to do is put it together."
First Published August 8, 2009 12:00 am