Essex rejoins Steelers’ jumbled offensive line

Three Super Bowl appearances over the past six years, three

different starting centers for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three

different right guards, left tackles and right tackles, too.

In fact, along the Pittsburgh’s offensive line, only left guard

has had a modicum of stability over the course of Super Bowl wins

following the 2005 and 2008 seasons and even through last season’s

Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers.

In a league – and on a team – in which stability, chemistry and

cohesiveness are valued in constructing an elite offensive line,

the Steelers have managed to consistently remain among the NFL’s

best despite constant change.

This preseason, the reigning AFC champions have auditioned no

fewer than four candidates for the job of starting right guard, and

virtually every prominent player on the unit has missed practice

time due to injury and/or contract issues.

The depth has been questioned enough that the team brought back

six-year veteran Trai Essex less than a month after coaches had

determined he was too out of shape to re-sign as a free agent.

Yet somehow, the Steelers aren’t all that concerned. After all,

they’ve overcome it before.

”I think every guy in here knows that when your number’s

called, you’ve got to answer the bell, and we’ve been successful

with that for the most part,” right tackle Willie Colon said.

”But having that solid (starting) five out there is going to be

really important for us starting the season.”

Colon missed all of last season with an Achilles injury and sat

out the first week of this training camp because of the

post-lockout rules governing free agents.

But Colon and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey – himself briefly

bothered by a pesky ankle this camp – are the most steady

components of the line. Chris Kemoeatu is entering his fifth season

as the starting left guard. But he opened camp on the physically

unable to perform list due to left knee swelling.

”As of right now, we’ve got a bunch of new guys stepping into

the (first-team) scene,” Kemoeatu said, ”and I’m still trying to

get back to 100 percent. But we’ve got two weeks left.

”It’s all about repetition and trying our best to build up the

communication with everyone. It doesn’t really matter who you play

next to here because every one of them are capable guys who have

been around who can step in there.”

Pittsburgh cut former starting left tackle Max Starks this

summer and re-signed the player who started the final 12 games of

last season (including playoffs) in his place, Jonathan Scott.

Like Colon, Scott was forced to sit out the first week of camp.

Then, he left Thursday’s preseason game vs. Philadelphia due to a

minor knee injury – the same fate that fell his backup,

second-round pick Marcus Gilbert.

That compelled the Steelers to move Tony Hills back to left

tackle after Hills had been given the start at right guard. Ramon

Foster, Doug Legursky and Chris Scott also are in the running to be

the starter at right guard for the season opener Sept. 11 at

Baltimore.

”We’ve shown from the years past, with the never-ending

revolving door with us, that we’ve really just got to focus on the

next person in line who’s going to step up so that there weren’t be

any dropoff in play or capability,” said Legursky, who started the

Super Bowl at center in place of an injured Pouncey. ”No matter

who’s in there on gameday, that’s who’s going to lead us into

battle.

”We’ve preached from Day 1 that, especially on the offensive

line, position flexibility is probably most valuable thing you

have. And that’s why we’ll go get somebody like Trai.”

Essex has started 25 games over his six seasons with Pittsburgh

– some each at tackle and guard. He also can play some center, but

he did lose his job as the starting right guard early last

season.

His contract expired, Essex said Steelers coaches weren’t shy in

letting him know when they saw him at quarterback Ben

Roethlisberger’s wedding last month that Essex was too overweight

for them to re-sign him.

”They see the huge difference between then and now,” Essex

said this week after he agreed a one-year contract on Monday.

”They know I spent some time losing weight. They’d been keeping in

contact with me, but this would have never happened if I didn’t

take the time to lose weight in the first place.”

Essex married this year, and his lockout was spent ”living it

up” between bachelor parties and honeymoons.

Word from Steelers coaches hit home, however.

”It made me realize that if I want to stay in this game and if

I want to play, that I have to really change some habits,” Essex

said. ”I made some bad habits, and the lockout was bad for me. But

also, this was blessing.”

Having the Steelers temporarily turn their back on him was one

thing. The phone not ringing from any other club was another.

But it says just as much about Pittsburgh’s depth on the line as

it does about Essex’s successful diet that he was lining up as the

No. 2 left tackle in practice the day he returned to the team.

That sounds alarming – and it probably would be, for most teams.

Somehow, though, the Steelers find a way to make it work year after

year.

”It starts, first, with our coaches in the room,” Foster said.

”Coach (Sean) Kugler and coach (Harold Goodwin), they do a good

job of making sure everyone knows everything. They treat everyone

as if you’re going to go in to play the game each week.

”We don’t mind who’s beside us playing. We just keep it rolling

with whoever’s in there.”

The Steelers play host to the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday.