Steel­ers’ of­fen­sive line solid as ever

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NFL - By Will Graves

PITTS­BURGH — The Hall of Famer who served as the group’s Sven­gali is gone. The quar­ter­back who long ago ditched his rep­u­ta­tion for ex­tend­ing plays in fa­vor of a more prag­matic and ca­reer-ex­tend­ing ap­proach is out for the sea­son.

And yet the Steel­ers of­fen­sive line keeps right on rolling.

While there have been few con­stants dur­ing an event­ful open­ing seven games that’s fea­tured three start­ing quar­ter­backs, a hand­ful of run­ning backs and no real com­mon thread on a week-to-week ba­sis, one thing has been cer­tain: no mat­ter who is be­hind cen­ter — be it Ben Roeth­lis­berger, Ma­son Ru­dolph or Devlin Hodges — they’ve had time to do their job.

The Steel­ers (3-4) have al­lowed an NFL-low seven sacks head­ing into Sun­day’s visit by the Colts (5-2), one of the main rea­sons why the Steel­ers’ sea­son hasn’t been writ­ten off com­pletely fol­low­ing a 1-4 start that in­cluded los­ing Roeth­lis­berger for the year to a right el­bow in­jury and the first starts for both Ru­dolph and Hodges.

“They’ve seen all this show be­fore,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Randy Ficht­ner said Thurs­day. “They’ve had to play with other backup quar­ter­backs, from Landry Jones to Mike Vick to Char­lie Batch. We’ve had guys here that’ve had to play, maybe not for this ex­tended pe­riod of time but they’re the cat­a­lyst to keep­ing things calmer and ob­vi­ously in pro­tec­tion they’re solid as a rock and they’ve re­ally been great.”

Even with long­time po­si­tion coach Mike Mun­chak leav­ing for the Bron­cos last win­ter. Even with de­fenses stack­ing the line of scrim­mage as a way of dar­ing Ru­dolph or Hodges to throw. Even while fac­ing bor­der­line reck­less all-out blitzes de­signed to make Ru­dolph panic, such as the Dol­phins’ de­ci­sion to send eight guys at Ru­dolph with the Steel­ers fac­ing third-and-20 in the sec­ond quar­ter on Mon­day night, a play that turned into a 45-yard touch­down pass to rookie Dion­tae John­son.

“Every­body talks about pick­ing their game up a lit­tle bit, but there’s only so much you can do,” guard

David DeCas­tro said. “How much harder can you re­ally play? You know you’ve got to pick your game up, every­one does a lit­tle bit to make up for los­ing a guy like Ben, but you’re not nec­es­sar­ily chang­ing how you’re play­ing.”

In part be­cause the Steel­ers didn’t feel they had to. When Roeth­lis­berger left in Week 2, cen­ter Mau­r­kice Pouncey wasn’t overly con­cerned. Yes, Ru­dolph and Hodges had never played in a reg­u­lar-sea­son game be­fore. But it’s not like they were com­pletely raw. The Steel­ers have closely mon­i­tored Roeth­lis­berger’s work­load dur­ing train­ing camp and the reg­u­lar sea­son in re­cent years in or­der to keep him fresh as he en­ters his late 30s, an ap­proach that’s given the back­ups more prac­tice time.

“I told you guys when Ben went down that those guys got a lot of reps,” Pouncey said. “Ben doesn’t prac­tice on Wed­nes­day and in camp he takes a lot of days off. Here the quar­ter­backs are very lucky be­cause they get a lot of key reps. Pre­sea­son, Ben plays 10 snaps. So (the prac­tice time) is cru­cial.”

When Ru­dolph re­placed Roeth­lis­berger in the sec­ond half against the Sea­hawks on Sept. 15, he put to­gether three scor­ing drives, the same as Roeth­lis­berger man­aged in the open­ing six quar­ters of the sea­son. When Hodges filled in for a con­cussed Ru­dolph against the Charg­ers on Oct. 13, he went deep on the first snap — an in­com­plete pass to JuJu SmithSchus­ter — and guided a pair of touch­down drives as the Steel­ers put to­gether a 24-17 win that re­sus­ci­tated their sea­son.

Though their num­bers aren’t the kind of video-game dis­plays Roeth­lis­berger put to­gether reg­u­larly last sea­son while lead­ing the NFL in yards pass­ing, they’ve also avoided crush­ing mis­takes. When the play isn’t there, they’re get­ting rid of it. When the defense shows some­thing at the line of scrim­mage, they check into some­thing else.

“Guys are com­ing down and they’re mak­ing right calls when­ever the defense is ad­just­ing the cov­er­ages,” Pouncey said. “When­ever you see that, it’s like en­cour­ag­ing man. Those guys re­ally work their butts off. They stay here late to get it right. They’re go­ing to have re­ally bright ca­reers if they stay fo­cused.”

There are still grow­ing pains. Ru­dolph took two sacks against the Dol­phins last week, one when he tried to scram­ble for yardage and didn’t throw the ball away as the defense closed in, the other when his foot­work took him to­ward the pres­sure in­stead of away from it. It speaks to the stan­dard the of­fense has set that Ficht­ner didn’t give the 24-yearold a pass.

“We sacked our­selves,” Ficht­ner said. “I like to go ev­ery game and re­ally our goal is to have zero sacks. I know it’s pos­si­ble be­cause we’ve done it be­fore. We’ve played games be­fore and not had the quar­ter­back get touched. So if we’re talk­ing per­fec­tion, what we’re at­tempt­ing to do, we’re at­tempt­ing to do that ev­ery week.”

JUSTIN BERL/GETTY

Ma­son Ru­dolph is the lat­est Steel­ers QB to be pro­tected by a stel­lar line.

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