Steelers shuffling the line, again
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) talks to offensive linemen Fernando Velasco, left, and Ramon Foster during Pittsburgh’s game against Baltimore last week.
PITTSBURGH – Seven different offensive line combinations in 2012. Eight in 2011.
The Steelers are no strangers to having to juggle their offensive line because of injuries or ineffectiveness.
This season, Pittsburgh couldn’t even make it out of its first possession of the season without losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the year to a torn ACL.
When they play Miami Sunday, the Steelers will use their sixth different starting offensive line because Fernando Velasco, who started every game at center since Pouncey was sidelined, suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury in a 22-20 loss at Baltimore last Thursday.
Cody Wallace, who was signed Sept. 9 along with Velasco, will make his first career start at center for the Steelers (5-7), who need a win against the Dolphins (6-6) to stay alive in the AFC playoff race.
Wallace, a fourth-round pick by San Francisco in 2008, has played in only two games this season and 11 in his career.
His teammates, however, are confident in his ability.
“Cody has been here the entire year. That’s the great thing,” said guard Ramon Foster. “He’s prepared for this week in and week out whether he’s been in there or not. His time has come. He knows everything that’s going on. He just has to get the game speed down, if anything.”
Wallace has been getting all of the first-team work this week. He also has been getting some extra work snapping with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to build a rapport.
“He does a great job of making sure everybody knows what they are doing,” Wallace said. “He walks into our (meeting) room from time-to-time and bounces some things off of us to make sure we are all on the same page.”
Wallace might not be the only different starter on the line.
Kelvin Beachum, who has started the past eight games at left tackle, did not practice Wednesday because of a sprained knee. Right guard David DeCastro is dealing with a sprained foot.
“I have no explanation for it,” said Foster, who made his first NFL start subbing for injured Chris Kemoeatu as an undrafted rookie in 2009. “We’re not the only offensive line that has had this kind of problem.
“It’s part of the game. They’re football injuries. It’s not like guys are doing crazy stuff. You just attribute that to play.”
This latest spate of injuries comes just as the Steelers’ offensive line was playing its best football. Roethlisberger was sacked 35 times in the first nine games, but has been sacked just once in the past three, and none in the last two games.
It’s the first time in his career Roethlisberger has played two consecutive games without being sacked.
With a new starter at center, the biggest issue Sunday might be running the no-huddle offense, which Pittsburgh has done quite a bit over the last month. The offensive effectiveness relies on code words and hand signals.
“On the way home from Baltimore, when I knew Fernando was out, I checked with all the guys about Cody,” Roethlisberger said. “I asked them, ‘Does he know it?’ To a man they said he’s a smart guy. There will be no issues. He’ll be good to go.”
In addition to the 49ers, Wallace has played for Houston, Detroit, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets. He hasn’t seen an offensive line hit by injuries the way the Steelers have been.
Though they haven’t always missed games with injuries, the Steelers’ linemen have been banged up enough that backup nose tackle Hebron Fangupo has lined up at guard at times on the scout team during practices.
“This year has been unusual in that way,” Wallace admitted.
“During the week, sometimes you might bring some guys over just to get through stuff, but most of the (injured) guys end up healthy on game day. This year has definitely been different.”
In addition to Beachum and DeCastro, nose tackle Steve McLendon (ankle) and defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) did not practice Wednesday. Keisel, who is in a walking boot, has been declared out for Sunday’s game. … Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has missed the last three games with a calf injury, was limited in practice Wednesday but is hopeful to play against the Dolphins. … Running back Le’Veon Bell (concussion) and offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle) were full participants.