PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Green Bay Packers 24-19 in their third preseason game Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, but there was little celebration.
All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey will be lost for an extended period after breaking the fibula above his left ankle. Late in the second quarter, just the second offensive series for the Steelers, Pouncey was blocking on a running play to Le’Veon Bell. Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix tackled Bell after a five-yard gain and landed on Pouncey’s left ankle. It was no laughing matter.
This is the second time in two seasons that Pouncey will have to miss the majority of a season. He was knocked out for the 2013 season after suffering a knee injury during the first series in the regular-season opener. The Steelers had issues at the center spot for several weeks and finished with a second straight 8-8 record. Now, with nearly three weeks before the opener against the New England Patriots, backup center Cody Wallace has time to prepare.
Some believe that Pouncey will return this season, taking advantage of the short-term injured reserve that guard David DeCastro used during his rookie year after a preseason knee injury. Right offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert believed that Pouncey would return at some point.
“He’s pretty down right now, but he’s the type of guy that will put this behind him,” Gilbert said.
While Wallace has been solid during his previous appearances, he is no Pouncey. A two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler, missing only in 2013, the Steelers 2010 No. 1 pick also missed the Super Bowl after an ankle injury during his rookie year as well as two regular-season and one playoff game in 2011. And the Steelers haven’t fared too well without him.
Mike Tomlin said that Pouncey will have a surgical procedure on the leg, and his status is unknown until after that is completed. However, the Steelers head coach tried to stay positive.
“It’s part of the game, and we don’t over-analyze it,” Tomlin said. “(But) it’s as much a part of the game as blocking or tackling. We’ll make the necessary adjustments, and I expect the ball to keep rolling because that’s the business that we’re in.”
The job of analyzing this injury is for others. The Steelers season isn’t lost, by any means, because Wallace isn’t a stiff. But, here again, he’s no Pouncey. Considered to be among the best centers in the game, Pouncey needs to return sometime this season for the Steelers or the O-line will take a step back.
Unfortunately, their early schedule is brutal. Expect Wallace to get a lot of snaps during the final two preseason games to prepare him for the regular season opener Sept. 10 at New England. After facing the Patriots, the Steelers play host to the San Francisco 49ers, visit St. Louis, play host to the Baltimore Ravens, travel to San Diego and face the Arizona Cardinals at home to end the opening third of the regular season.
Going 3-3 in that stretch wouldn’t be out of the question for the Steelers even if they are completely healthy, but with Pouncey out and running back Bell suspended for the opening two games it could be difficult to break even. The Steelers offense still can be explosive and will need to carry the load early on until the defense gains some momentum.
Rookie draft picks Bud Dupree and Doran Grant played well vs Green Bay and could be strong contributors at outside linebacker and cornerback as the season progresses, respectively, while strong safety-linebacker Ian Wild and cornerback Kevin Fogg also are making a push to make the final roster.
The next preseason game Saturday at 4 p.m. at Buffalo will tell a lot about the 2015 Steelers. Starting positions could be solidified, and open spots could be earned. That makes it more interesting than usual for a preseason contest.