The names are not the ones Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin penciled in atop the depth chart when the season began.
Still, unlikely starting offensive linemen Kelvin Beachum and Fernando Velasco will have a say in Pittsburgh’s fortunes.
“How they do and how we do is going to determine how we move forward,” Tomlin said.
No pressure or anything.
Velasco was told about Tomlin’s typically blunt assessment of his team’s prospects as it tries to climb out of the franchise’s worst start in 45 years. He nodded his head and said quietly, “It starts with us.”
Velasco was working out in Atlanta waiting for the phone to ring in September when Pittsburgh lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a right knee injury eight plays into the season. Beachum was moonlighting as a 305-pound third tight end only to be promoted to starting left tackle after Mike Adams looked overmatched in a loss to Minnesota.
Now they find themselves critical parts of a unit that is starting to show signs of coming together.
The Steelers (2-4) rushed for a season-high 141 yards in a season-saving win over Baltimore last Sunday. A week earlier, Pittsburgh ran for 63 yards in the second half, able to milk the clock in a 19-6 victory over the New York Jets.
The numbers, at least by the Steelers’ lofty standards, are abysmal. They enter Sunday’s game at Oakland (2-4) just 27th in the league in rushing. But for the first time in 2013 the arrow finally appears to be pointing up.
“You know, losing Pouncey that first game was tough, so it took us a little time to get on track and get the keys,” guard David DeCastro said. “I think, right now, we’re playing really well together and communicating really well.”
Not bad for a group that appeared lost after Pouncey was taken off the field on a cart minutes into the opener against Tennessee. Though Pittsburgh moved quickly to sign Velasco, the drop-off was significant, and the early returns were miserable.
The Steelers averaged just 2.8 yards per carry during a four-game losing streak. They couldn’t protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, either. Spending most of the first month under significant duress, Roethlisberger was careless with the ball at times and buried underneath a sea of opponents at others.
The seas are beginning to grow calmer. Rookie Le’Veon Bell returned, and the players who spent weeks trying to figure out how to work together are now more cohesive. The group that pounded away at the Ravens last weekend looks like the one the Steelers thought they were getting when the season began.
Pouncey’s injury forced Pittsburgh to ditch the outside zone blocking scheme it spent a large portion of the offseason installing. In its place the Steelers have returned to a decidedly more direct approach. They gashed Baltimore between the tackles, relying on DeCastro, Velasco and Ramon Foster to clear a path.
“That’s what (Steelers owner Art) Rooney writes us a check for,” Velasco said. “We’re pros. That’s our job to go out and do it so there’s no drop-off when a new guy comes in the huddle. We can’t make no excuses and say, ‘This guy just hasn’t played. This guy hasn’t been here. This guy just got here.”’
The Steelers are averaging 3.9 yards per carry during their modest two-game run.
“We’ve done some good things, but we can’t say that we’ve turned the corner until we get above .500,” Foster said. “Until that point, we just have to keep our heads down and keep going forward. We can’t think that we’re superstars or anything like that, just because we won a couple games.”
The one superstar the line does have is recovering from knee surgery. Yet Pouncey remains engaged. He stood on the sideline in sweats as Velasco held his own with Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata. Pouncey and Velasco would exchange ideas between series.
Velasco’s work ethic and attention to detail have won over his quarterback.
“You’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve said it a thousand times. He’s filling in for the best center in football, and he’s done a great job doing it.”