Porous O-line undergoing changes

PITTSBURGH – There was no way to sugarcoat it. After all, Bill Cowher watched his offensive line on film again, and was disappointed again.

"Very much so," Cowher said Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

The Steelers' offensive line ranks 28th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play. They've allowed 22 sacks (25th), compared to 13 at the same point last year, and are coming off their worst job of protecting Ben Roethlisberger since Week 10 of the 2004 season when the Cincinnati Bengals sacked him seven times.

The Oakland Raiders sacked Roethlisberger five times last Sunday and right tackle Max Starks took the brunt of the blame. He allowed 2005 NFL sack champ Derrick Burgess two sacks.

On review, the NFL took a half sack from Burgess and gave it to Tommie Kelly, but that didn't lessen the effect Burgess had on the game.

"It was a tough first half but I made adjustments in the second half and improved in the second half," said Starks. "One of the things that gave me problems against him was that he was lining up so wide. At one point it looked like he was in between the slot and me. You just try to anticipate it a little bit more. Once I got those two bad ones out of the way, then we adjusted the snap and got him offsides. He started playing more honest and it made the game a lot easier."

In the second half, the Raiders got to Roethlisberger three times, twice by Kelly, the tackle closest to Starks. Kelly lined up over Chris Kemoeatu, who could be replaced this week by Kendall Simmons.

Simmons had been the starter at right guard but sat out an entire game Sunday for the first time, when healthy, since he entered the league in 2002 as the Steelers' first-round draft pick.

"It's disappointing to a certain degree but it's the nature of the game and it'll happen to all of us eventually," said Simmons. "I didn't think it'd be that early but it's part of it. I've got enough pride in myself to keep working hard and whatever happens with it happens."

Was Wednesday an indication that Simmons will be back in the starting lineup?

"Today I just wanted to work as hard as I could and let them make that decision," he said.

There's no question about another change in the starting lineup this week: Sixth-year pro Chukky Okobi will start in place of injured Jeff Hartings at center. Okobi last started in 2002, when he replaced Hartings for five games and the Steelers went 4-1. The only loss was the inexplicable loss to the Houston Texans.

"Physically, I don't think anything's really changed much," Okobi said. "I may be a little bit shorter since they took that piece of my disk out. The only difference I would say is just from a confidence standpoint because I've been in this league a while and this ain't my first rodeo. That's the biggest difference."

Okobi, who thought his career might be over when a neck problem surfaced during training camp, played the second half against the Raiders and threw the key block on linebacker Kirk Morrison to spring Willie Parker's 25-yard screen pass for the Steelers' only touchdown.

"I've got to give credit where credit is due: Dr. Maroon and God," Okobi said of his recovery. "Nobody else thought that at this point, in Week Nine, that I'd have all these cameras in my face."

Even though the line is struggling to protect Roethlisberger, and the running game is averaging less per carry this year (3.8) than last (4.0), changes are being made, whether forced or otherwise. Starks doesn't believe the changes will become problematic.

"I don't think there are chemistry problems because, number one, Chukky's been playing for six years," Starks said. "Him and Jeff are pretty much mirror images as far as knowledge, if not Chukky knowing more. He's a very vocal individual just like Jeff. The only thing that's different is the snap count when we're away, but coming back home it makes it a lot easier for guys."

The Steelers worked in pads rather than shells again Wednesday, and they went hard in the nine defenders on seven running drill. But that's business as usual, according to Starks.

"Today was another rough day," he said. "You just keep doing it and you know something good is bound to happen. I think we're right there, right close at the cusp of it."

Roethlisberger, for one, hopes so.

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