Finally, Starks Part of Steelers' Mix

Curiously unloved for years, left tackle Max Starks feels like he's finally fitting in with the Steelers. And he has some good reasons for wanting to beat the Chiefs on Monday night.

PITTSBURGH – Even if he wouldn't admit it to reporters Thursday, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley wants the Kansas City Chiefs. Badly.

Max Starks does, too, but he doesn't have near the reason Haley – the deposed and humiliated former coach of the Chiefs – does.

"I know he's going to want this," Starks said. "And I personally want this game because I didn't have my best game against the Kansas City Chiefs last year. We narrowly won. I think I want to make it more convincing this year and have a better showing."

There's another reason: Starks was invited to Kansas City in August of 2011 for a tryout, but they sent him away without a contract. Haley, of course, was the coach at the time.

"It wasn't Haley," Starks said. "It was their doctors. Haley wanted me and he got mad.

"I had my neck surgery and the doctors were scared. They were the first people to work me out since my surgery. Haley was pissed. He told me later, ‘I wanted you. That's why I had them call you. And then to watch you do as well as you did, I was pissed but happy at the same time because I felt you deserved the opportunity. But, I wish it would've been with my team.'"

Starks eventually signed with the Steelers a month into the season after Jonathan Scott bombed as the team's left tackle. Then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians swallowed his pride and agreed that Starks probably should've been there from the start.

Starks has had his ups and downs with the Steelers, but even if the coaching staff turned its nose up at him, the front office hadn't. He was kept through two different franchise tags and stayed in Pittsburgh, married his Pittsburgh girl, and recently they just had their Pittsburgh child.

All went well last season, but Starks still had to go through some difficult moments wondering whether the Steelers would re-sign him this season.

It's not like finding left tackles is an easy thing to do.

What gives?

"It's the NFL," Starks said with a laugh. "I didn't think I was going to come back here this year and I'm back here again. It's truly a blessing and something that's awesome, but I don't take it for granted. I have no expectations about what should and shouldn't go on."

Ben Roethlisberger clearly thinks Starks should be getting more respect than he has been. Roethlisberger urged the Steelers to bring him back and Starks has re-paid them, and Roethlisberger, with perhaps the best half-season of his nine-year career.

Not only is Starks the key part of a line that's keeping Roethlisberger cleaner than he's ever been kept, he's part of a line that's not only opening up huge holes for its fast-improving running game, it's doing so with attitude.

"Their tenacity, you can't really describe it," said running back Jonathan Dwyer. "Willie (Colon) plays crazy, you know? You can't really describe it. Willie just plays crazy. And he plays with the tenacity of a pit bull. (Maurkice) Pouncey, he never gets tired. He just plays and plays and plays, and you see him running down the field. To me he's the best center in the league. You see it from Max, too. They feed off each other and you can tell by the way we play."

Starks used to irritate Arians because he wasn't a so-called "glass-eater," but Starks has become that guy through unintended peer pressure.

"If you're the one guy that's laying in the weeds you kind of stick out now," said Colon. "If you're not in the scrap or you're not fighting, you kind of get left out and you kind of get pointed out. It's a good thing because it means everybody's working and everybody's fighting for a yard."

"Oh, yeah," Starks said with another easy laugh. "I pride myself on being reserved, but you can't be reserved too long around those guys, especially on the field."

Starks agrees that the newfound aggressiveness across the front is helping a running game that's averaging 5.1 yards per carry the last three games.

"It really is," Starks said. "The run game is about attitude. At the end of the day it's about going out there and obviously we get to be proactive instead of reactive. It's about wanting to impose your will upon a defender. Usually guys yap a lot at the beginning of the game. Usually by the fourth quarter you really see who won."

Lately, that's been Max Starks.

NOTES – As expected, SS Troy Polamalu, WR Antonio Brown and LB Stevenson Sylvester missed Thursday's practice. RT Marcus Gilbert returned for the first time since injuring his ankle against Tennessee. He was limited, as was RB Rashard Mendenhall. RBs Dwyer and Chris Rainey were full participants.

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