By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a rich history as far as centers are concerned, and rookie Maurkice Pouncey appears to be destined for greatness like those offensive line anchors before him.
Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings have been the Steelers’ top centers. Webster is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Dawson should be among the finalists for induction in 2011. Mansfield set the standard initially, while Hartings led one of the league’s best run games during his tenure.
Pouncey’s best days certainly are ahead of him, but New York Jets center Nick Mangold is the current standard for the position with consecutive Pro Bowl selections. Kevin Mawae from the Tennessee Titans and Jeff Saturday from the Indianapolis Colts are other top centers in the league, but Pouncey is quickly gaining ground on them.
“Pouncey, that’s a guy we would’ve taken if he would’ve been there, regardless of need or not,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “We’ve got the best center in football, but we still would’ve taken him. He’s a great player.
“We would’ve put him at guard or somewhere. But he’s just a great football player. I think you have two of the best centers in the league going at it. I’d Mangold probably right now over him, but this kid is a great football player.”
The Steelers (10-3) face the Jets (9-4) Sunday at 4:15 p.m. at Heinz Field, and that prompted comparisons between Mangold and Pouncey. Ryan told an interesting story about the Steelers rookie that impressed him.
The Buffalo game, some No. 50 from Buffalo decides he’s going to be a tough guy at the end of the play (and tried) to push Pouncey,” Ryan said. “He goes to shove Pouncey, and Pouncey gets his hands inside and literally lifted the guy off the ground and pushed him to his back. And it was great.
“I was like, oh man, because you never see that. But this guy thought he was going to be tough after the play and really push and shove Pouncey and Pouncey lifted him right off the ground. … We’ll mix up our coverages, but I think I’ll put (Darrelle Revis) on Pouncey.”
In just a short time, Pouncey has become a student of the game, and he’s well aware of five-year NFL veteran Mangold from Ohio State.
“I look at them all, and Mangold is a great player,” Pouncey said. “I watch him all the time and learn from him. I’m trying to do some of the things that he’s doing. The way he gets after people, he’s really smart out there. He knows opposing defenses, and he knows how to control an offense. The best thing I can do is watch him and learn from him.
“(Ryan), he’s a good dude. I met with him. He flew me up there, and I met with him and the owner. We joked around a little bit. They said they were going to take me if they got the chance, but the Steelers took me before they picked. I’m glad I’m here, but if I wasn’t I would want to play for Coach Ryan. They kept it real with me, and we talked about football and a lot of things.”
When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned from his four-game suspension, Pouncey already was entrenched in the middle of the Steelers offensive line. But the two didn’t appear to have any issues getting in sync.
“I was able to get enough work with Maurkice in camp, so it didn’t take long at all to get acclimated to him when I starting playing during the season,” Roethlisberger said. “Maurkice is athletic, certainly, but he’s also very smart. He’s really smart, and he picks up on things better than most.
“Some young guys, they kind of lose the mental aspect of the game a little bit and rely mainly on their physical abilities this late in the season. But not Maurkice. He’s doing so well mentally and physically right now, and it’s shown in the way he’s playing. I think he’s playing at a high level.”
Steelers veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton has battled both Mangold and Pouncey and assessed both players.
“(The Jets) run the ball well and work well together, but it’s not going to be any different than anybody else that we play against,” Hampton said. “There’s a lot of good centers in this league. He’s a good player, but I’ve played against a lot of good players. So, he’s a good center, but I’ve played against a lot of good ones over the years. He’s one of those good ones, though.
“(And) I’m not going to pump up the young dude too much. He’s going to be good. There’s no question, but he’s still got a lot to learn. He’s real good, and he’s going to be a great player. But he’s got a lot of work to do, and he still has a long way to go. So, I’m not going to give him too many props just yet. He’s only scratched the service now, and he can only get better.”
Ramon Foster, a second-year player, lines up next to Pouncey on the right side. He also believes that Mangold set the standard for young centers in the NFL, but added that Pouncey should follow in his footsteps as far as accolades and level of play are concerned.
“The center has to know as much as the quarterback does about defenses, and we work off his calls,” Foster said. “Maurkice, he’s really been a lot of fun to work with this season, (and) I know he’s going to bring his all every snap. And that makes you want to bring your all as well.
“He’s a good guy with a lot of energy. Right after he found out he was the starter, at the end of training camp, he stepped up his game and learned a lot about the defense we faced each week. As two young guys on this O-line, we hope to stay together for a long time with the Steelers.”
Steelers backup nose tackle Chris Hoke has seen centers come and go during his nine NFL seasons, and he already puts Pouncey in the upper echelon.
“Mangold’s a good football player and a tough football player,” Hoke said. “With him, I think, it’s just that he plays hard from the whistle to whistle, maybe even sometimes after the whistle with some pushing and shoving. But he’s a good player and a physical player, and some guys could be intimidated by that.
“But Maurkice, he’s a very athletic player, probably more athletic than Mangold, who’s really physical. Maurkice can be physical, too. Don’t get me wrong, but he’s really athletic. That’s his best asset, I would say, and they’re both good football players. Whatever center wins their matchup this week could be the difference in the game, I think. That’s how important it’s going to be.”
Notes: Troy Polamalu (ankle), Heath Miller (headaches) James Harrison (illness), Steve McLendon (stinger) and Aaron Smith (triceps) did not participate in practice Thursday for the Steelers. … Harrison wasn’t at practice at all for the second straight day. … Flozell Adams (ankle) and Bryant McFadden (hamstring) put in a full practice, but Miller couldn’t go after giving it a try Wednesday.
For the Jets, S James Ihedigbo (ankle, knee), DE Trevor Pryce (hip) and S Eric Smith (concussion) did not practice Thursday. Smith already has been ruled out. … CB Darrelle Revis (hamstring) participated on a limited basis, while everyone else from Wednesday’s list returned to practice.