By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive linemen have been dropping like stones in a lake this year, but the group has managed to stay afloat despite being shuffled from the outset.
Right tackle Willie Colon actually got it started in late June with a season-ending Achilles injury. Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams were brought in to compete for his spot in training camp, and rookie Chris Scott — who also suffered a foot injury — has been on the Physically Unable to Perform list all season.
Veteran center Justin Hartwig was replaced by rookie No. 1 pick Maurkice Pouncey, and guards Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex each missed time with injuries.
Backups Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster and Tony Hills have gotten more snaps than expected, and now left tackle Max Starks must be replaced. He will have surgery soon to repair a disc herniation in his neck.
“(This) dictated that we put him on IR, and Chris Scott is elevated to the 53-man roster,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s a young man that we’re excited about. He’s got himself healthy and has represented himself well over the last several weeks, so we’re excited about moving forth with him.
“This also is an opportunity for Jonathan Scott to answer the bell for his teammates at left tackle. I’m sure he’s excited about that, as are we, and we expect him to play winning football for us. (The injury) is not career-threatening for Max, but it’s something that needed to be fixed.”
Chris Scott, who needed to be moved off the PUP today or be placed on IR, will wear No. 61 for the Steelers.
Tomlin added that while Jonathan Scott has primarily played right tackle and Adams was a left tackle until this season, they will remain in the same spots. Scott will play left tackle, while Adams will stay on the right side.
Tony Hills also could get some time at left tackle, but whomever plays there will need to maintain a high level of play because Starks was having a solid season.
“Coach Arians brought up that the last time we won the Super Bowl we lost Marvel (Smith) and Kendall Simmons, so we had guys fill in then,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “And we need guys to step up this year. (Max) is 6-8 and 300-some pounds, so it’s a big loss.
“And he’s been on my blind side for a while now, so you never want to lose a guy like that. But I have confidence in J.Scott and whoever else who’s going to watch my back. (But) this O-line is a special group in a lot of different ways. They’re so close and can interchange with each other on the line.”
Tomlin said today he believes the Steelers offensive line has improved from last season.
“I think that it has, but of course we only have an eight-game body of work compared to last year’s 16-game body of work,” Tomlin said. “So, I’m always hesitant to make comparisons like that, but we hope our best days are ahead of us. … We can get much better or we can decline, I guess.”
Jonathan Scott has started against the New England Patriots, the Steelers opponent Sunday night at Heinz Field, several times before in his NFL career. He started at both left and right tackle for the Buffalo Bills.
“Consistency is the framework of our entire team, on offense, defense and special teams,” Scott said. “So, we need to come together on the O-line and hold up our end. … The challenge for me is to continue to mesh with the rest of the offensive line.
“I’ve got the silent (count) down pat, but getting in there and playing together is the key. The more reps I get, I’ll be better and better. I have to play at a high level right away, though, because that’s what Max did. (But) I’m sure Coach Kugs (O-line coach Sean Kugler) will have us all ready to go.”
Starks wasn’t the only Steelers offensive linemen to be injured Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals. Center Maurkice Pouncey missed some time after being kicked in the shin, but he later returned. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu also suffered a left knee and ankle injury and is day-to-day.
“It was friendly fire,” Kemoeatu said. “Trai (right guard Essex) was driving his guy, and they both fell on me. And I hurt my knee and ankle on the same play. It really hurt, but the MRI didn’t look as bad as it felt. And it felt pretty bad, but it’s a sprain. So, we’ll see how I feel by the end of this week.
“It didn’t feel right when I tried to push off later in the game, so I’ll take it easy for a couple days. If it’s not ready, I’ll take this week and give it a go next week. I’m pretty confident that I’ll play this week, but we’ll see. If not, I don’t think I’ll miss more than just the one game. I should be ready for sure next week.”
Essex played the past two weeks after an ankle injury forced him to miss four games. He primarily was replaced by Legursky. Foster also took a turn in there when Legursky faltered, and both could get reps on the left side in case Kemoeatu can’t play.
Kemoeatu said he’ll probably play with a brace this week, but added that he’ll do whatever he needs to get back on the field. Essex felt the same way.
“I’ve been doing pretty well, considering my ankle is still pretty sore, but for the most part it’s been pretty good,” Essex said. “And it should continue to improve. We’ve certainly had our share of injuries up front on offense, but we’ve got some good young guys who have done a good job.
“And we’ve got a good coach who has taught us excellent technique, so I don’t believe we’ll have a problem with those guys in there. Jonathan Scott, if Ramon (Foster) has to play, but they already have made an impact. You know, you’re only as good as your backups, and we think we’re pretty good up front.
“(The injuries) have been tough, but a lot of credit goes to Coach Kugler,” Essex added. “He got us going right away. A lot of guys played different positions from the outset, and that really has helped us. So, he deserves a lot of credit. We’ve been well-prepared. He’s intense, and he really knows the game as a former player. So, we believe in him and use that as motivation.”
Adams also missed some time with an ankle injury this season, so until the Bengals game Pouncey basically was the last man standing on the O-line.
“I got kicked, and it didn’t feel good,” Pouncey said. “But it’s all good now. (And) other guys are getting opportunities, so that’s the way I look at it. I had an opportunity like that when I came in here, and other guys have had it and have done well. Max is a great player, but we don’t want to miss a beat without him. So, J.Scott has to get in there and keep it going.
“Max has been in Super Bowls and is a veteran, but we’ve been losing guys all year. And I think we’ve played pretty well, so that definitely has to continue this week and for the rest of this season. We’ll get healthy, eventually, because you wouldn’t think it could get any worse for us on the O-line. And we’ll keep pushing on as long as we can get enough guys out there.”
Notes: Players who didn’t participate fully in practice Wednesday included Kemoeatu (knee, ankle), DE Brett Keisel (hamstring), TE Heath Miller (water on knee), PK Jeff Reed (illness) and DE Aaron Smith (triceps).