Steelers improved, all along the offensive line

TAMPA - Bruce Arians feels Andy Reid's play-calling pain. While he's not nearly as allergic to the run as Big Red, the Steelers' much-maligned offensive coordinator knows what it's like to have fans second-guess every play he radios in to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"Everybody thinks they can call plays better than you, whatever city you live in," said the former Temple head coach. "Nobody likes calling defense. But everybody wants to call the offensive plays. Why'd you run it? Why'd you throw it? That's part of the job."

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Arians

Arians has been getting second-guessed a lot this year because, well, his offense has struggled much of the season. The Steelers made it to Super Bowl XLIII mainly on the strength of their No. 1-rated defense. Arians' unit tagged along for the ride, finishing 22nd in the league in total offense, 23rd in rushing, 17th in passing and 20th in scoring.

Roethlisberger finished 24th in the league in passing, threw just two more touchdowns (17) than interceptions (15) and was sacked 46 times. The only quarterback who was sacked more was the Patriots' Matt Cassel (47). Their ground game wasn't much more productive, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.

A huge part of the problem with the offense this season has been the offensive line. The Steelers rebuilt it in the offseason, letting Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca sign with the Jets and trading center Sean Mahan to the Bucs. Mahan was replaced by Justin Hartwig, who was signed in free agency, and Faneca was replaced by first-time starter Chris Kemoeatu.

Then, early in the year, they lost two other starters to season-ending injuries. Right guard Kendall Simmons ruptured his Achilles' tendon in Week 4, and left tackle Marvel Smith hurt his back in Week 5. Veteran Max Starks, who had been the backup at right tackle, replaced Smith. Simmons was replaced by green second-year man Darnell Stapleton, an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers.

"We're a work in progress," said Starks, a former starter who had the key block on Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run in the Steelers' 21-10 Super Bowl win over Seattle 3 years ago. "You come in and you have five guys all through training camp and they all train together. Then one guy goes down and you have a second-year guy [Stapleton] who hasn't played a full game, come in. Then, the following week, your other oldest veteran [Smith] goes down.

"It took us a while to get together. We had to do it on the fly with our butts pretty much on the fire. You can't say enough about how we all jelled and how it all came together."

In early December, after a 20-13 win over the Cowboys in which the offense registered just 13 first downs, converted only three of 16 third downs and gave up five sacks, the offensive line started gathering at Hartwig's house at least one night a week for extra film study. The idea bore immediate fruit. The very next week, they gained 311 yards, converted eight of 17 third-down opportunities and gave up just three sacks in a 13-9 win over the Ravens and their tenacious defense.

"There's not a group I'm more proud of on this football team than those guys," Arians said of his offensive line. "They've developed a bond. One of the key things with an offensive line is camaraderie. Skill level obviously is the most important thing. But they've got to believe in each other and have each other's back. And these guys do."

Said offensive tackle Willie Colon: "I think everybody on this line just became accountable for themselves. We understood that we were going to have to take some extra film work together. And we all realized it wasn't about what anybody outside this room thinks. It only mattered what we thought about each other." *