By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — The majority of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive linemen are either 23 or 24 years old, so the players tend to spend time together on and off the football field.
This builds team camaraderie and unity and should pay off with an increase in performance throughout this season. But it wasn’t anything that was planned, according to veteran Ramon Foster. That’s just how things worked out.
“We have a young group, all around the same age, and we do a lot of stuff together,” Foster, 27, said. “I think that will be a benefit to how we play this season. We have to be in sync, playing well together, so the better we get to know each other then the more in sync we’ll be this season.
“All that extra work together, pushing each other all the time, has to pay off in the end. So, we have a solid group, but we need to build some depth behind our starters. We recognize that they have to get better every day as well, and they have some talent. We just have to teach them the right way here in camp.”
The Steelers starting front five consists of Marcus Gilbert, Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, from left to right. Guy Whimper has been a backup at both tackle spots, while Chris Hubbard and Justin Cheadle have been backup guards on the left and right side, respectively. John Malecki is the backup center, but he also alternates at guard with Kelvin Beachum.
The key thing is to have good leadership, and we’re fortunate that Maurkice and Ramon both have been great leaders for us,” Steelers offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. said. “They’ve been there and have done that, so the guys respect them. That’s very important, especially when things aren’t going well.
“And without a doubt, it’s a whole lot easier for me when the guys on the O-line get along much better. You want to have a tight unit among your offensive linemen, and I think we have that. They get along very well, and I think that’s important, that they have that brotherhood of offensive linemen.”
Bicknell added that his veterans haven’t just led by example. They also have done some on-field teaching, and that makes it easier when a young player needs to be put in his place. Bicknell believed a player responds quicker when a teammate delivers constructive criticism.
“Well, I think we all get along pretty well,” Pouncey said. “And when one of us speaks up, the other guys listen. Me and Ramon have been here a few years now, and Guy has been in this league a long time. So, even though we don’t have Max (Starks) or Willie (Colon), I think we have good leadership.”
Whatever the reason, the Steelers offensive line appears to be coming together quickly in training camp. And that bodes well for the future of the unit.
“We’re pretty excited about this year,” Adams said. “I think we have a chance to be really good. If we could all stay healthy, that would be awesome, but that’s difficult to do in this league. And we haven’t been able to do that the past few years here.”
That actually is an understatement. The Steelers have used 20 different offensive line combinations to start games the past three seasons.
“That has to be some type of record, one that you don’t want,” Foster said. “I really believe it was just a matter of circumstances here, for the most part, but that number seems to be a little higher than normal. That’s why Coach Tomlin told us all to wear knee braces during practice.
“It was tough for some guys to get used to it, but I can see where he’s coming from. The main thing is to stay healthy, and with practice every day in camp it can be tough. The healthy O-lines usually are the good O-lines, because they play together for a while and jell.
“We want to be good, so we bought into it and recognized what Coach was trying to do,” Foster added. “Even Pouncey is all right with it. His is lighter, but it’s just as strong. We have to keep Ben off his back to win a lot of games here, and we can’t do that with a lot of injured O-linemen.”