Injuries thrust rookie Gilbert into starting role
Maurkice Pouncey saw the crowd of reporters surrounding teammate and good friend Marcus Gilbert in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room Wednesday and couldn't resist an opportunity to put the rookie offensive tackle in his place.
''Who's in there? Big Ben?'' the Pro Bowl center said. ''Looks like we're going to have to deflate his head a little bit.''
Better Pouncey than the Seattle Seahawks.
Two weeks into his professional career, Gilbert finds himself the starting right tackle for the defending AFC champions after veteran Willie Colon was placed on injured reserve with a torn right triceps.
It's not the way the second-round pick out of Florida wanted to get the job. Yet he understands the team's decision to turn to him rather than pursue a free agent is a sign of the faith the coaching staff has in his ability.
''I guess they have a lot of trust in me for what I did in preseason,'' Gilbert said, ''and it carried over.''
Even after a rocky start to training camp.
Gilbert spent the lockout in Gainesville, Fla., working out with Pouncey. When the lockout abruptly ended, Gilbert wasn't ready. He arrived at St. Vincent College in late July out of shape and needed a pep talk from Pouncey, who he played alongside at Florida in 2009.
Pouncey's message was clear: It's time to grow up.
''I told him it's a lot different than college, you're not getting pampered all the time,'' Pouncey said. ''You've got to go in here and be accountable for everything you do.''
It meant learning a whole new language and blocking scheme. It meant treating football as a job he could lose at any time. It meant paying attention in meetings and making better choices at the training table.
Gilbert has done enough to earn a shot. He knows it's up to him whether he keeps it or not.
''You have to step in there and show you can do it,'' Gilbert said. ''That you're capable of handling the situation.''
If he needs inspiration, he need only look at Pouncey, who beat out veteran Justin Hartwig for the starting center spot as a rookie last year and ended up in the Pro Bowl.
''As soon as (Pouncey) got his number called,'' Gilbert said, ''he took advantage of it.''
Don't get Gilbert wrong. He's not making reservations for Hawaii just yet. He's simply trying to get through his first week as a starter.
There have been easier weeks to walk onto the job.
The Steelers are coming off a humbling 35-7 loss to Baltimore last week, a game in which the offensive line allowed the Ravens to sack quarterback Ben Roethlisberger four times and force a club-record seven turnovers.
There were communication breakdowns and an inability to run the ball consistently. Fixing the problems would be difficult enough without having to throw a rookie into the mix.
Playing musical chairs along the line, however, is hardly new in Pittsburgh. The Steelers did it with aplomb last year where, only Flozell Adams started all 19 games.
''It seems like every year we go through offensive line changes and moving guys around and they've always done a great job of stepping up,'' Roethlisberger said. ''You have to have 100 percent trust, faith and belief in the next guy. I know they'll be good at filling in at the right spots and doing their best so it seems like we'll never miss a beat.''
The majority of line shuffling involved replacing veterans with veterans. Not this time, though it hardly matters.
''The standard is the standard,'' said guard Chris Kemoeatu, ''and we've got to hold ourselves and each other accountable no matter who's in there.''
The Seahawks (0-1) aren't the Ravens, but they're hardly pushovers after limiting San Francisco to 209 yards in a 33-17 loss attributed largely to a pair of special team gaffes.
Not that the Steelers are concerned with the Seahawks. They're simply hoping to look a little more like themselves on Sunday.
While the veterans will do their best to quell any nerves Gilbert will experience - and he readily admits nerves are a certainty - they're not going to hold his hand once the game starts.
''He better catch up,'' Roethlisberger said. ''If he's not there, we're not slowing down for him. He needs to get on pace with us.''
That's where Pouncey comes in.
Though Pouncey is nearly 18 months younger than the 23-year-old Gilbert, he's taken on a fatherly role. They live in the same housing complex and Pouncey is constantly urging Gilbert to dive into the playbook or break down some game film.
Gilbert laughed when asked if he was the third Pouncey brother - Mike Pouncey is a rookie lineman with Miami - but Pouncey has taken a personal stake in Gilbert's development.
He praised Gilbert before the draft, telling team management his former linemate ''goes hard, he's an accountable guy and if they picked him it's a good choice'' even if Pouncey stopped short of saying picking Gilbert was his call.
''I wish I made all the picks,'' Pouncey said. ''I would have got (my brother) Mike here.''
Instead he got Gilbert, the son of a former Secret Service agent who ''got away with nothing'' as a child. That kind of discipline has paid off the last six weeks for Gilbert.
Sure, there are better ways to become an NFL starter. At this point Gilbert knows it doesn't matter. If he has to learn on the fly, so be it.
''You've just got to be ready and I'll try and be ready,'' he said. ''I think I'm going to do a pretty good job at it.''