Steelers hope Velasco’s a quick study

September 14, 2013
ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, SEPT. 14-15 - FILE - In this Sept. 8, 2013, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is taken off the field with team doctor James Bradley after injuring his right knee in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans in Pittsburgh. The Steelers haven't had a back top 100 yards in nearly a calendar year, with little cause for optimism after losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the season with a knee injury. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

PITTSBURGH – Last Sunday, Fernando Velasco was sitting in church with his family, something that has been a rare occurrence for him in the fall.

Less than an hour later, he was on a plane headed to Pittsburgh as a possible replacement for Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

Talk about a whirlwind day.

“Once the situation came up, it was a no-brainer,” said Velasco. “It was an opportunity to come in and play. Obviously, I’ve got to learn the book first. It was a good opportunity to come in and play for a great organization.”

The question for Velasco now is when he’ll be able to play?

The Steelers have one last practice today before heading to Cincinnati Monday night to face the Bengals.

Velasco, a center in college at Georgia, started 16 games for Tennessee last season, including 13 at center. Despite his relative lack of knowledge of the Steelers’ playbook, he’s got way more experience at the position compared to Kelvin Beachum, a second-year player who replaced Pouncey last week after he suffered torn knee ligaments in the first quarter of a 16-9 loss to the Titans.

Beachum, who has never started a game at center at any level, is still listed as the starter, but the Steelers would prefer Velasco get up to speed with the position sooner rather than later.

The coaching staff quickly put Velasco in touch with guard Ramon Foster, who has been giving him a crash course on the Steelers’ playbook and terminology. Foster, the Steelers’ most senior lineman, has taken on several duties this week.

“One is making sure Beach is ready to go,” Foster said. “Two is making sure that, God forbid, if Beach goes down, Fernando has got to be ready. We’ve got to be ready. Every day in meetings, I’m telling them to do this, do that. A lot of the stuff they did in Tennessee, so he is familiar with it. The dude is smart.”

So smart, in fact, that there’s an outside chance Velasco could start against the Bengals, who figure to attack the middle of the Steelers’ offensive line regardless of who is there.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been impressed with what he’s seen of Velasco, who appeared in 48 games, making 19 starts over four seasons with Tennessee.

“You can tell he’s been in the league for a number of years, and you can tell that he’s played the center position,” Haley said. “We’re trying to get him up to speed as best we can, just like any other player that comes in new to us that has missed an offseason and a training camp because there are terminology issues and calls. Really, for an offensive lineman there is a lot to learn. Our coaches are working night and day with him, trying to just get him up to speed.”

The Steelers were fortunate Velasco was available. Tennessee offered him a second-round tender as a restricted free agent, but brought in veterans Chris Spencer and Andy Levitre. Then, the Titans selected guard Chance Warmack in the first round and center Brian Schwenke in the fourth round of this year’s draft and decided Velasco’s one-year tender contract of $2.023 million was too expensive to keep on the books.

“I felt I played well last season,” Velasco said. “They gave me the tender, then they signed a couple of guys and drafted one. That’s the NFL. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. As soon as I got cut, I went to the gym and kept working out. I’m here now and I’m ready to work.”

If Velasco can quickly get up to speed, it will allow the Steelers to go back to their original plan, which included Beachum not only being the backup at every offensive line position, but playing at tight end as well.

With starting tight end Heath Miller still recovering from a knee injury, the Steelers planned to use Beachum as an extra blocker a lot last week against the Titans. Because of Pouncey’s injury, however, they were only able to use that formation three times, including the play on which Pouncey was lost for the year.

“The plan was that he was going to be involved in it a good deal,” said Haley of using Beachum at tight end. “He’s a very versatile guy that we felt would give us some benefit in that area in that particular game.

“Injuries are part of it. It happens. You’ve got to adjust on the fly, and we just didn’t do a good enough job from an adjustment standpoint or an execution standpoint.”

Odds and end zones

Placekicker Shaun Suisham was a full participant in practice Friday. The Steelers signed placekicker Shayne Graham earlier this week in case Suisham, who is dealing with a hamstring injury, is unable to play Monday. … Nose tackle Steve McLendon (hamstring) also returned to practice Friday. … Miller was a partial participant. … Cornerback Cortez Allen (ankle) and running back Le’Veon Bell (foot) did not practice.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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