We have finally entered the dog days of camp.
The excitement is starting to wane as the days get hotter, the coaches get tougher and the players start to get those aches and pains.
More and more guys make their way to the trainer to ice down before and after practice and this can be no truer than along the Offensive Line for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers went out and signed free agent Center Alex Stepanovich yesterday in order to sure up their situation and give added depth to an Offensive Line that is starting to be depleted by injuries once again.
With Center Justin Hartwig out with a broken toe and Guard Darnell Stapleton on the rack for at least two weeks for arthroscopic surgery on his knee, the already questionable Steelers O-Line had a few questions that required immediate answers.
Stapleton had been practicing at Center in place of Hartwig, who arrived at camp with his toe injury. The undrafted free agent out of Rutgers started the final 12 regular season games and all three playoff games at Right Guard after Kendall Simmons went down last year.
With Stapleton already moving from Guard to Center, Trai Essex had to step into the open Guard position. With Stapleton out the Steelers were facing the possibility of having an undrafted practice squad player (Doug Legursky/Marshall) or this year’s seventh round pick A.Q. Shipley step into the starting Center position.
The addition of Stepanovich allows the Steelers a bit of breathing room as they get into the preseason schedule.
Stepanovich was an immediate starter for the Cardinals, and continued to do so until he ended up on the IR during the 2006 season. The Cardinals decided not to renew his contract after the season, making him a free agent.
He signed a one-year deal with the Bengals to play the 2007 season.
The 6’4”, 296 lb Center played the 2008 season in Atlanta before being cut this June to make cap space.
He will practice with the Steelers for the first time this afternoon wearing the number 67.
While injuries are never good and the thought of multiple injuries is even worse, the situation is far from out of control at this point. Hartwig should be ready for opening day according to team doctors.
While there is no guarantee as to when Stapleton will return, the chance to see both Urbik and Shipley rotate in with the first team in the absence of the two starters may work to the advantage of both the coaching staff and the two rookie linemen.
The only real concern going forward is the lack of opportunity for the starting five to form the cohesion as a unit that typically lasts for the entire season.
Injuries decimated the O-Line last season and the Steelers gave up 49 sacks (4th most in the NFL) and rushed for only 1,690 yards (23rd) as they spent most of the regular season trying to come together as a unit.
No one can argue with the end result the Steelers were able to achieve last season, but I am sure Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers Running Backs would appreciate a quicker gelling time in 2009.
With that said, the Offensive Line battles have not only jumped to the top of the list of things to watch, it has also become the most critical position at which someone needs to step up and make an impact for the Pittsburgh Steelers this summer.