By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Trai Essex has been the Steelers’ utility offensive lineman since he was drafted from Northwestern six years ago, but unless there there’s an injury to the club’s top unit that moniker won’t be necessary.
Essex, who started every game for the Steelers at right guard last season, appears to have secured that spot again this year. That might come as a surprise to some, because Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believed No. 1 pick Maurkice Pouncey would battle Essex for playing time at right guard and eventually win the job.
Instead, Pouncey has been competing with veteran Justin Hartwig at the center spot, while Essex has been a fixture at right guard.
“That was my goal, to come in here and start again,” Essex said. “I wanted to come in here and compete, no matter who it was against, Pouncey, Ramon (Foster), Doug (Legursky), Kraig (Urbik) or whoever. But I had a goal, that I wasn’t going to lose this job.
“And it’s good to know that the coaches had faith in me as well. But it’s great to play the same position two years in a row, because as you guys know I’ve been flipping around ever since I’ve got here. I think that alone has really helped me out with my confidence, and now I’m just ready to play ball.”
Actually, Essex has another role with the Steelers offensive line. He’s been like an assistant coach, helping….
rookie center Pouncey to his left and first-year tackle Flozell Adams to his right. Adams played 12 years for the Dallas Cowboys, but hasn’t played right tackle since his rookie season.
“They’re giving Flozell all the reps that he needs,” Essex said. “This is his first time playing right tackle ever, so they’re giving him all the reps that he needs to get used to it. But it looks pretty much like it’s a done deal. (And) I’m just helping him get adjusted, (because) he’s been in another system for 12 years.
“He’s had different offensive coordinators, and I’m sure they tried to keep things the same as much as possible. But this is a whole new thing for him. Just helping him with the terminology and how we do things here. That’s been my main focus, because the quicker he can pick things up it’s only going to help us be a better offensive line. The first day, he was getting frustrated.
“He couldn’t get his footwork right, but after the first day there was no difference,” Essex added. “After that, he made tremendous strides. He made great strides, even from the Detroit game to the New York Giants. It’s different, moving from left to right, with body weight and balance. But he’s adjusted well, and … until somebody tells me otherwise, Flozell’s our right tackle.”
Essex wouldn’t say the same thing about Pouncey, basically noting that Hartwig has the most experience and should not be counted out just yet. But that doesn’t mean he won’t give both a lot of help, even if it forces him to put in a little more time in the video room.
“I don’t mind,” Essex said. “Whatever I can do to help this O-line succeed, I’ll do it. If that’s helping the guy to the left or the guy to the right or both of them, then I’ll do it. (And) we already have shown improvement during the preseason.
When I look at film from this time last year to this year, we’ve improved.
“We’re a much more physical team. I think that has a lot to do with when Kugs (O-line coach Sean Kugler) came in and set the (tone) right away. We’re driving people off the ball. We’re finishing plays. We’ve placed a bigger emphasis on the run, and as an O-line that’s what you want. (And) I think the success is because our whole mindset as an O-line has changed (with Kugler).”
If Pouncey cracks the starting lineup, that would only be enhanced.
“He’s very athletic and tough, and he really likes to get after it,” Essex said. “He has adjusted very well for a rookie, probably more than anyone would have thought, but he’s going to be a good one. That’s for sure. He’s made a few mistakes here and there, but everybody does.
“And making the calls at center is tough to do, especially for a rookie. And whenever he makes a mistake, I help him out, but they have been minimal. He’s done great, but the mental aspect is what I’m most impressed with because it takes a lot for someone to grasp our offense from a center perspective.”
But as long as Essex is the right guard, the Steelers O-line should run smoothly.
Notes: Steelers speedster Mike Wallace, a second-year wideout, scored on a 68-yard bomb from Byron Leftwich against the Giants. Wallace believed that play was the first of many that he should secure this season.
“That’s what I pride myself in,” Wallace said. “I’ve been doing that since high school, getting behind everybody. (And) I’ll continue to do that until somebody shows me that they can cover me. “So, that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Whether it’s Leftwich or Ben Roethlisberger, Wallaced believes he and the Steelers quarterback will hook up quite often this season.