Can backup linemen work magic?

The Steelers' offensive line can't go anywhere but up. Darnell Stapleton and Trai Essex are about to get their chance to make it happen.

PITTSBURGH – Some guys are just magic.

Darnell Stapleton entered Monday night's game to start the second half at right guard in place of injured Kendall Simmons. At the time, the Steelers were losing 13-3. They rallied for a 20-13 lead and beat the Baltimore Ravens in overtime.

What, Stapleton was asked, did he do to turn that game around?

Max Starks and Ben Roethlisberger, at nearby lockers, overheard the question.

"Game changer! Game changer!" Starks shouted at Stapleton.

"How DID you turn it around?" Roethlisberger asked before shouting the question to the rest of the locker room.

"See what you started?" Stapleton said to the reporter. "You're getting me in trouble. You're a troublemaker."

But Stapleton IS a game changer. He did it in college. Rutgers hadn't played in a bowl game in 27 years until Stapleton transferred there to play center in 2005. And in 2006, Stapleton led Rutgers to an amazing 11-2 record.

Stapleton wasn't drafted, but made the Steelers as a free agent in 2007, and he didn't see his first action on the offensive line until Monday night, when he rallied the Steelers to a win.

"No, the offense turned it around," Stapleton said. "We had a nice little talk from our quarterback, who's our leader, and that helped the offense pick it up in the second half."

Stapleton was thrown into the fire against Haloti Ngata and the 310-pound Stapleton stopped the 350-pounder in his tracks. Or something like that.

"I know I'm not 350 pounds, but I can hold my own," Stapleton said. "It went all right. He's a load and I think I held my own."

But Stapleton must win a competition this week against Trai Essex to keep the job. Essex is a five-year vet who's started five games, including the playoff game last year against Jacksonville. He's played only left tackle in those games, but has practiced at both guard spots and both tackle spots the last two years. At 6-4, he's a few inches taller than Stapleton and at a listed 324 is at least 15 pounds heavier. He also drew raves at training camp as one of the team's most improved players as he filled in at left guard for injured Chris Kemoeatu.

Stapleton opened as the right guard at Wednesday's practice, but Essex is expected to get his chance today.

"I'd be lying if I said this isn't a good opportunity," said Essex. "If I get in there and perform well, I might be there the rest of the season. So it's a great opportunity."

Essex said he can play all five line positions, and that the difference between guard and tackle is "space. Tackles deal with a lot of space, whereas at guard, the guy's right there in your face. Other than that it's the same thing: Hit the guy across from you in the face and protect the quarterback."

But the Steelers haven't been doing much of that this season. The Steelers have allowed 16 sacks. Only San Francisco, with 19, has allowed more. So what do the Steelers have to lose by replacing one veteran lineman with either of these veteran linemen?

"I think people are just trying to do more than their job," Essex said. "I think everyone will settle down and start to get this thing done."

If either Stapleton or Essex can't get the job done Sunday night in Jacksonville, the following bye week would afford Coach Mike Tomlin to look at another contender: right tackle Willie Colon, a natural guard who could slide over for Max Starks at right tackle.

"WHAT?" Colon asked. "What is all this BS? I've been in meetings all day. I haven't heard anything about this." Colon was kidding of course. Wave after wave of reporters had stopped at his locker to ask him about playing guard after Tomlin hinted at the move at his Tuesday press conference.

"Whatever it takes," Colon said. "I just want to win. I went through enough losing in college. I just want to win. If I can step in and be a factor, fine. I take pride in playing right tackle, but I also take pride in being in the starting lineup and winning games."

The Steelers have the candidates who would allow the line to not fall off in performance. But they could also do so much more.


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