One of the most detail-oriented franchises in the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to ad-lib more than a little Monday night, and the unexpectedly successful adventure in musical chairs on the offensive line was a key ingredient in the team’s 27-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
How’s this for improvisation? With three offensive linemen injured at various junctures of the first half, and having dressed a complement of only seven blockers, backup tight end Matt Spaeth was receiving a hurried sideline cram course on the unfamiliar art of playing offensive tackle.
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"Yeah, things were a little scary there, huh?" said the fourth-year veteran Spaeth, who has never before played tackle, not even in high school. "I was kind of nervous but excited at the same time. I know the run stuff. The pass plays, they just told me they would keep things simple, and tell me who to block. Thankfully, guys went back in the game … and it didn’t come to that."
On the play-by-play documents, it will actually show that the game came down to the ability of linebacker James Harrison and cornerback Ike Taylor to knock the ball away from Cincinnati slot receiver Jordan Shipley on a fourth-and-five play at the Steelers’ 12-yard line. The Bengals, horrible for much of the contest, particularly on their special teams units, very nearly stole a game away from the Steelers here for the second consecutive year, storming back from a 27-7 deficit.
But while Harrison and Taylor made the play that saved the Steelers from a second straight defeat, and will allow 6-2 Pittsburgh to limp into next Sunday night’s home showdown with what coach Mike Tomlin termed a "scalded" New England bunch, the victory belongs just as much to the team’s makeshift offensive line.
Maybe even more.
At various points, the line lost starters Chris Kemoeatu (left guard, knee), standout rookie center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and Max Starks (left tackle, stingers). Fifth-year backup Jonathan Scott played guard for the first time in his career. Key reserve Doug Legursky, who had been a starter at right guard when Trai Essex was injured for a month, bounced back and forth between guard and center.
While the patchwork line wasn’t great, as the Steelers gained a modest 312 yards and rang up 14 first downs, it was plenty resourceful.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (17 of 27, 163 yards, one touchdown) was hurried throughout the contest, but sacked just once. Pittsburgh pounded out 121 yards on the ground and tailback Rashard Mendenhall carried 22 times for 99 yards. Maybe most impressive was that the Steelers bled a critical five minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter on seven straight runs.
On that drive, Mendenhall rushed on all seven plays for 43 yards. The possession ended when Jeff Reed was wide left on what would have been a game-clinching 46-yard field goal, but the resolve of the blocking unit was palpable.
"It was like, ‘OK, it’s on us to finish it off,’ you know?" Legursky said. "Our defense had been bailing us out and we kind of put it on ourselves to gut it out. We wanted to make some kind of statement, and we were a little upset that we couldn’t get that one more first down to end it. Or at least move (Reed) a little closer for the kick. But it worked out OK."
Pouncey returned in the second half, looking none the worse for the wear after the game, and that allowed Legursky to bump over to left guard. Starks re-entered the game sporting a collar to support his sore neck. As usual, 13-year veteran Flozell Adams, who played the first dozen seasons of his career as a left tackle in Dallas, was at right tackle throughout.
"I’m really proud of these guys," Starks said. "Everybody gets ‘reps’ in practice, but do be able to do it in a game and not panic, well, that’s special."
Said Tomlin: "When we had to, we moved the ball on the ground. We want to be able to run in a timely manner, and that (fourth-quarter drive) was a timely manner."
The Steelers’ coach was typically pragmatic in noting that his team "was not about to make excuses" for all its injuries, but allowed that at one point, the line unit was "ultra thin," and offered some thanks that the team didn’t have to resort to what he termed "the Matt Spaeth Plan."
To a man, though, the line contingent after the game held firm in its belief that it would have found a way to get the job done no matter how dire the circumstances.
"As a lineman," said Pouncey, the first-round choice who has already deemed himself worthy of being in the long lineage of standout Pittsburgh snappers including Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings, and who has garnered some early support for offensive rookie of the year honors, "you just suck it up and somehow find a way to do what you have to do."
On Monday night, the often-maligned Pittsburgh line did just that.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.