The five sacks by the Dallas Cowboys represents the high mark against the Steelers in the past 11 games. Only the Philadelphia Eagles, with nine sacks in Week 3, have gotten more. But the Steelers have given up only nine sacks in their last four games, a four-game low for the season.
Finally, the line appears to be jelling.
"We definitely had our ups and downs," said center Justin Hartwig. "But we basically had five new guys who came together. To become a really good offensive line, you need time to jell. It's not just communicating, but understanding where guys are going to be and operating efficiently as a unit.
"I think it's just been a matter of time, but we've been in the trenches together now for several months and we have a really good understanding of each other and we're getting better every week."
Hartwig will face his former team Sunday when the 11-3 Steelers play the 12-2 Tennessee Titans with the AFC's top seed at stake. Hartwig was drafted by the Titans in the sixth round in 2002, but left after the 2005 season when the team couldn't match a five-year, $17 million offer from the Carolina Panthers, that included $11 million guaranteed over two years. But after those two years, the Panthers let Hartwig go. He ended up in Pittsburgh, where he beat out Sean Mahan for the job, only to find himself in the middle of a revamped line that couldn't pick up a blitz.
But that was then.
"The more we play the better we've become," Hartwig said. "Early in the season you were worried about the bigger concepts of every play. Now, we understand the concepts and we're focusing on the little technique things and communicating with the running backs, communicating with the quarterback, to let them know, for example, when a hot guy's coming up somebody's gap, and nobody's responsible for him, that we have to block down and get him and the quarterback has got to understand whoever else will come."
The Steelers allowed only three sacks in 46 dropbacks against the blitz-happy Ravens in noisy Baltimore last week. This week, the Steelers take travel to Nashville where the fifth-ranked Titans defense will attempt to add to its 38 sacks. They'll be without Pro Bowl run-stuffer Albert Haynesworth and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who've combined for 13 of those 38 sacks. The Titans' depth up front, though, is respected by NFL talent evaluators.
"They've always had the talent there, for the most part, and they've got a great coaching staff," said Hartwig, who's not surprised by his former team's sudden success.
"The coaching staff's been in place so many years now. I know in the offensive line room there's been a lot of continuity there and they've got a great offensive line coach. He's great on technique. I'm not really surprised at their record. I just think it was a matter of time for them to get the right personnel."
NOTES – The only player to miss Thursday's practice for the Steelers was offensive tackle Marvel Smith, who'll miss his 10th straight game with back problems. … The only Titan to miss Thursday's practice, aside from Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch, was reserve cornerback Cary Williams.