It's the epitome of a contradiction upon first glance, but the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is a perfect microcosm for the team.
How can arguably the team's weakest link compare to a team that will be playing in Dallas in just over a week? Through its toughness, grit, and willingness to do whatever it takes to support the team and win.
This offensive line has struggled this season. There's no debating that point. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just over once every twelve dropbacks during the regular season and once per six in the team's two playoff games. Rashard Mendenhall averaged under four yards per carry for 2010. While some of that can be attributed to the individual, there's without a shadow of a doubt the line deserves a large portion of the blame.
It's clear that people will point to those negatives when asked about the line's performance. What isn't so clear is the adversity this group has had to go through has been a climb higher than Mt. Everest itself. It's shocking it has allowed the offense to have any sort of production.
Get in the DeLorean and travel back to after the April draft. The hope of an improvement from the line hung in the air after the drafting of Maurkice Pouncey, the strong 2009 play of Willie Colon and the chance for a breakout year from Chris Kemoeatu.
Jump to the end of June. The first blow to the line, a brutal one. Willie Colon tears his Achilles tendon doing a simple, seemingly harmless agility drill. Surgery, injured reserve, say goodbye to your right tackle.
Flozell Adams? As far as hotels go, many fans would have picked Paris Hilton over the 35-year old who seemed at the end of his line.
Having to make a position switch, to which offensive line coach Sean Kugler said "It would be like writing with your left hand all the time, and someone saying, 'Hey, turn around and write with your right hand,'" Flozell has given everything in his power to the team. It hasn't always been pretty and by no means is he an all-star.
Despite playing all but one season with Dallas, he feels like he has been a Steeler for fifteen years. I've lost count of the number of times he's had his ankle rolled into. He's likely been playing through a knee or ankle injury all year long. Against the Ravens, he succumbed to the flu at halftime after playing the entire first half. After left tackle Jonathan Scott got hurt on the last play of the third quarter, Flozell stumbled out of the locker room in an attempt to enter the game. Coach Tomlin had to pull him off the field and sit him on the bench. If I have the sniffles, I don't count on getting out of bed.
Flash back to Week 2. Trai Essex suffers what was deemed to be a "mild" injury that in reality, kept him out for several weeks. Doug Legursky replaces him. Eventually, Ramon Foster replaces Legursky and has been the starter ever since. Three right guards over the course of a season. There aren't a lot of teams that can say they've been through that and been successful.
Look at Week 9. Max Starks suffers a neck injury. He plays through it because the team was down to five active lineman after losing Maurkice Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu. Only when Pouncey came back did Starks leave the game. He may have easily worsened the injury by playing through it, winding up on injured reserve. He took a chance and it burnt him, but he did it because the team needed him.
Chris Kemoeatu has battled injuries all year. At one point, he said he had both a knee and ankle sprain. There hasn't been any whining for him, no quit in his game. His assignment didn't change, you can hear Tomlin's voice echoing "The standard is the standard," and he continued to be the main piece in the team's trap blocks.
Another game, another injury. Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey, the first rookie center elected to the Pro Bowl since 1956, suffers a high ankle sprain and leaves the stadium on a cart unable to put any weight on his left leg. Asked about whether or not he'll be ready in two weeks for the Super Bowl, Pouncey simply replied, "Three days." It's unclear if he'll play or not and recent reports are making that look even more unlikely, but the determination can practically be read off the page.
Also in the Ravens game, Ramon Foster had to play right tackle. The problem? He hadn't gotten a game snap at the position since the preseason. He did it anyway.
Four different players have gotten snaps at left tackle: Max Starks, Jonathan Scott, Trai Essex, and Tony Hills. Four at left guard: Chris Kemoeatu, Doug Legursky, Jonathan Scott, and Tony Hills. Three at right guard: Trai Essex, Doug Legursky, and Ramon Foster. Four at right tackle: Flozell Adams, Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, and Jonathan Scott. Only one lineman on the roster has not played a snap this season: Rookie Chris Scott who missed the first half of the season with a fractured foot.
At least three times this year the team has been down to just five lineman. The backup tackle being tight end Matt Spaeth. The backup guard being...what's Gerry Mullins up to these days?
This unit has been asked to do everything and anything this season. Without question, without hesitation. Believe it or not, the Steelers need these guys.
Who would have thought that would have been the key?