O-line can build off Saturday's success

<b>LATROBE –</b> A Steelers offensive line that is struggling through injuries and position changes believes it found a springboard Saturday. <br><br> On the first play of the team's second goal-line session of training camp, the line blew open a hole for Jerome Bettis, who ran five yards for a touchdown.

"Since we didn't score last time it kind of left a sour taste in our mouth," said guard Alan Faneca. "To come in and knock it out in one play is sweet."

In the first session, last Wednesday night, the Steelers failed to score on four inside running plays. The revamped offensive line was one of the reasons, but Saturday's success is being viewed by some as a turning point for the line.

"We're starting to come together the last couple days," Faneca said. "If you were in our meeting room watching the film from practices you could see the things that aren't particular to the play, as far as knowing where your buddy is and what they're doing and what guys two spots over are doing, so all of the sudden, bam, you're helping him out. Things like that are starting to come around the last couple of days."

Faneca provides stability for an otherwise revolving front wall. The two-time All-Pro enters his sixth season as the Steelers' left guard, but the names all around him are changing.

To Faneca's left, Marvel Smith lines up at the tackle spot formerly held by departed free agent Wayne Gandy. To Faneca's right, Jeff Hartings struggles with a knee injury.

A few doors down, Keydrick Vincent starts in place of Kendall Simmons at right guard. The length of Vincent's stay will depend upon how quickly Simmons recovers from the onset of diabetes, which forced him to lose 30 pounds in the weeks preceding training camp.

At right tackle is Oliver Ross, who struggled through the first week of camp after failing as a right guard last year.

The right side of the line could in fact prove problematic for the Steelers. And if pricey free-agent acquisition Jay Riemersma starts at tight end, Mark Bruener's blocking will be missed.

The question marks go all the way back to center. Hartings hinted at retirement last week.

"If people keep falling on it, or it continues to deteriorate," the 31-year-old said of his left knee, "then obviously you retire earlier than you expected or wanted."

Hartings tore cartilage in the knee in last year's opener and played until Oct. 21. He underwent surgery and missed four games, and then aggravated the knee this off-season. He was held out of the run test, has gained weight and has had difficulty blocking Casey Hampton, the 338-pound nose tackle.

"I think I just overworked it before it was healed," he said.

The problems were put on hold Saturday when Bettis slammed through the hole opened by Hartings, Faneca and tight end Jerame Tuman, who rolled down to help block Hampton.

"I think they are doing well," Coach Bill Cowher said of the unit. "Marvel and Alan over there have had a good first week. Not having Kendall in there is giving Keydrick an opportunity and I thought that he had a good first week. Obviously we would like to get Kendall back sometime next week."

Simmons has gained some of his weight back, but his loss of muscle definition is obvious. He's learning to monitor his sugar levels while jogging and lifting weights.

The most consistent linemen have been Faneca and Smith. The latter was considered a question mark coming into camp after moving over from right tackle.

"He's doing a great job," said Faneca. "I think he's still finding his comfort zone, as far as moving from right to left and getting used to me as compared to Kendall. He's doing a great job. We're jelling, us two together, and starting to feel good over there."

"Right now I feel really comfortable on that side," said Smith. "I was able to work on it all off-season, so right now I'm just getting into the groove and getting my timing down. I just need to get to the point now where it's all natural and I don't have to think about doing anything."

It's a unit that has the appearances of becoming a weak link. But Saturday's success was certainly something around which the group can rally.

Jim Wexell

Steel City Insider Top Stories