By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — It’s been proven that strong football teams have played well in the trenches, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have displayed depth on both sides of the line already this season.
First-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey replaced Super Bowl center Justin Hartwig at the beginning of the season, and when starting right guard Trai Essex injured an ankle Doug Legursky stepped in the past three games. Both Legursky and left guard Chris Kemoeatu missed plays last week, and Ramon Foster had to play both spots on the offensive line.
“We have a lot of young guys who can step in, and we’ve been doing pretty good as a front line so far,” Kemoeatu said. “Hopefully, Trai will be able to come back this week, and that will make us even better and much deeper on the O-line.”
Essex has continued to work harder in practice each day, but he does not yet look like he’s ready to step back into the starting lineup. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that with the way Legursky has played, that pushed Essex even harder to get healthy. He said he’s at about 90 percent right now.
“I didn’t know he said that, but that’s Tomlin-esque, I guess you could say,” Essex said. “I knew Doug was going to do well, so I wasn’t worried about that. But I just wanted to get back in there and play. I wanted to miss the least amount of time that I possibly could, so that was my motivation to get back.
“I’m getting close. I’m much better. It sucks to know that I couldn’t do anything when those guys got hurt against Cleveland. I felt pretty helpless at that time. Guys were in there battling, playing their hearts out, and all of a sudden we were down to one guard at one point. (But) Ramon did a great job.”
Defensively, starting right end Brett Keisel has a hamstring injury, but Nick Eason stepped in there. And former No. 1 pick Ziggy Hood is pushing for more playing time as well. When Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton was injured earlier this season, backup Chris Hoke maintained the level of play.
And when Hoke went down with an injury, former practice squad player Steve McLendon was in on a fumble. McLendon might have to be activated this week as well, but he won’t know until late Friday or Saturday.
“We have some great backups, so they’ll have to step up again,” Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. “The one thing here is that we have a lot of depth, so that should keep our line operating at a high level. We also can keep our rotation going, and we’ll be ready for Brett to step in when he’s healthy.
“Ziggy probably will get more snaps than he has in the past, but he’s ready for it. And I think he’s played pretty well when he’s had a chance. (And) Nick’s played really well, considering what he went through in the offseason. He’s come a long way, so we’re glad to have Nick a lot healthier now. With Ziggy and Nick and Chris Hoke, we have a good rotation on our defensive line.”
Tomlin basically challenged Hood, the Steelers No. 1 pick a year ago, after the last game when Eason played extensively after Keisel was injured. Eason stuck up for Hood, noting that he suffered an ankle injury in the second game this season and has struggled to get back up to speed.
“He’s been kind of struggling with that and not playing at as high a level as he can,” Eason said. “It’s tough, but you’ve got to fight through it. And he’s still going to be a good player. He’ll keep improving this year, and he should get more playing time this week.”
Hood kind of downplayed the injury.
“I’m slowly getting to the point where I should be ready to play if I get in there and get more playing time this week,” Hood said. “I continue to watch Big A (Smith) and Keisel and Hokie and Hamp to become a better player, because those guys are among the best in the league. So, I want to be like them.
“My ankle is all right. I got a little nicked up, and it took away from my speed. That’s what I bring to the table, but it’s getting back to where I need it to be. And I’m getting ready to play. I’ll do whatever the coaches want me to do, and I’ll keep working hard. But I’ll be ready if they call my number.”
Harrison Here, But Not Talking
All the James Harrison talk slowly died down with the Steelers defensive players mostly staying out of the locker room and Harrison unavailable for comment.
Aaron Smith had some closing thoughts on the subject.
“I don’t think anybody plays harder, works harder or trains harder than James,” Smith said. “He plays for the love of this game, like all of us, and he lays it on the line every week and tries to play within the rules. We all do, and that’s why he’s so frustrated by all of this. I’m sure he wonders if it’s all worth it.
“But at the end of the day I know he’ll just want to play football and he’ll have our support no matter what. We expect him to have good practices the rest of this week and be ready for the Dolphins. (But) I’ve never seen James be dirty out there. Never. He plays the game hard, and he plays the game physical.
“That’s the way he feels the game should be played,” Smith added, “and that’s how he plays it. And if you take someone of that caliber off the field, you’re not going to replace him. You might find somebody to play his spot, but you’re not going to find a James Harrison out there. So, we’re glad he’s back.”
Notes: It looks like Keisel (hamstring) is going to be the only player unavailable, unless Essex (ankle) has a setback. And Legursky might start anyway. … Also, it looks like Emmanuel Sanders will return kicks again this week and be the No. 4 wideout, while Antonio Brown will be deactivated.