PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Hall of Famer who served as the group’s Svengali is gone. The quarterback who long ago ditched his reputation for extending plays in favor of a more pragmatic and career-extending approach is out for the season.
And yet the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line keeps right on rolling.
While there have been few constants during an eventful opening seven games that’s featured three starting quarterbacks, a handful of running backs and no real common thread on a week-to-week basis, one thing has been certain: no matter who is behind center – be it Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges – they’ve had time to do their job.
The Steelers (3-4) have allowed an NFL-low seven sacks heading into Sunday’s visit by Indianapolis (5-2), one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh’s season hasn’t been written off completely following a 1-4 start that included losing Roethlisberger for the year to a right elbow injury and the first starts for both Rudolph and Hodges.
”They’ve seen all this show before,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said Thursday. ”They’ve had to play with other backup quarterbacks, from Landry Jones to Mike Vick to Charlie Batch. We’ve had guys here that’ve had to play, maybe not for this extended period of time but they’re the catalyst to keeping things calmer and obviously in protection they’re solid as a rock and they’ve really been great.”
Even with longtime position coach Mike Munchak leaving for Denver last winter. Even with defenses stacking the line of scrimmage as a way of daring Rudolph or Hodges to throw. Even while facing borderline reckless all-out blitzes designed to make Rudolph panic, such as Miami’s decision to send eight guys at Rudolph with the Steelers facing third-and-20 in the second quarter on Monday night, a play that turned into a 45-yard touchdown pass to rookie Diontae Johnson.
”Everybody talks about picking their game up a little bit, but there’s only so much you can do,” guard David DeCastro said. ”How much harder can you really play? You know you’ve got to pick your game up, everyone does a little bit to make up for losing a guy like Ben, but you’re not necessarily changing how you’re playing.”
In part because the Steelers didn’t feel they had to. When Roethlisberger left in Week 2, center Maurkice Pouncey wasn’t overly concerned. Yes, Rudolph and Hodges had never played in a regular-season game before. But it’s not like they were completely raw. The Steelers have closely monitored Roethlisberger’s workload during training camp and the regular season in recent years in order to keep him fresh as he enters his late 30s, an approach that’s given the backups more practice time.
”I told you guys when Ben went down that those guys got a lot of reps,” Pouncey said. ”Ben doesn’t practice on Wednesday and in camp he takes a lot of days off. Here the quarterbacks are very lucky because they get a lot of key reps. Preseason, Ben plays 10 snaps. So (the practice time) is crucial.”
When Rudolph replaced Roethlisberger in the second half against Seattle on Sept. 15, he put together three scoring drives, the same as Roethlisberger managed in the opening six quarters of the season. When Hodges filled in for a concussed Rudolph against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 13, he went deep on the first snap – an incomplete pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster – and guided a pair of touchdown drives as the Steelers put together a 24-17 win that resuscitated their season.
Though their numbers aren’t the kind of video-game displays Roethlisberger put together regularly last season while leading the NFL in yards passing, they’ve also avoided crushing mistakes. When the play isn’t there, they’re getting rid of it. When the defense shows something at the line of scrimmage, they check into something else.
”Guys are coming down and they’re making right calls whenever the defense is adjusting the coverages,” Pouncey said. ”Whenever you see that, it’s like encouraging man. Those guys really work their butts off. They stay here late to get it right. They’re going to have really bright careers if they stay focused.”
There are still growing pains. Rudolph took two sacks against the Dolphins last week, one when he tried to scramble for yardage and didn’t throw the ball away as the defense closed in, the other when his footwork took him toward the pressure instead of away from it. It speaks to the standard the offense has set that Fichtner didn’t give the 24-year-old a pass.
”We sacked ourselves,” Fichtner said. ”I like to go every game and really our goal is to have zero sacks. I know it’s possible because we’ve done it before. We’ve played games before and not had the quarterback get touched. So if we’re talking perfection, what we’re attempting to do, we’re attempting to do that every week.”
NOTES: RB James Conner (shoulder), RB Benny Snell Jr. (knee) and G Ramon Foster (concussion) did not practice Thursday. … Pouncey (calf), DT Dan McCullers (ankle) and LB Ulysses Gilbert III (back) were full participants.
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