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Offensive line rises to occasion to lift Steelers to Super Bowl

PITTSBURGH -- The first, and perhaps only, question about the Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl worthiness has been answered.

In resounding fashion, the Steelers let everyone know that yes, indeed, they can rely on their much-maligned and injury depleted offensive line to come through in a big game in a big way.

That's what they did by rushing for 166 yards, and averaging 3.9 yards per carry, in their 24-19 victory against the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. That's what they did by giving Ben Roethlisberger -- through an otherwise underwhelming performance -- just enough protection to make just enough plays to allow them to hang on as the Jets chipped away at, but never could erase, a 24-0 first-half deficit.

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"Our offensive line did a great job," said Rashard Mendenhall, who ran for a game-high 121 yards, while averaging 4.5 yards per carry, and a touchdown. "I am not out there running by myself. They controlled the line of scrimmage. There were holes and gaps."

Holes and gaps are supposed to be particularly hard to find against the Jets. Rex Ryan's defense isn't prone to allowing any team to manhandle it up front the way the Steelers did.

And Pittsburgh's offensive line isn't exactly known for its capacity to dominate.

It certainly didn't inspire that sort of confidence after losing one starting offensive tackle, Willie Colon, before the beginning of the season, and another, Max Starks, later in the year. More starters would suffer injuries along the way. By the end of the season, only two members of the unit would have the distinction of having started all 16 games -- rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and veteran tackle Flozell Adams, signed in the summer after his release from the Dallas Cowboys to be Colon's replacement.

Then, about nine minutes into the AFC title game, came what looked as if it could very well be the knockout blow. That was when Pouncey left the field with a high ankle sprain. Doug Legursky took over, and even though the Steelers would finish the game's opening drive with a touchdown, there seemed to be cause for at least some concern that the Steelers would end up having problems on offense.

Despite his lack of experience, Pouncey excelled at making the correct line calls, which figured to be a more difficult chore against the Jets' complex and ever-changing defensive front. It turned out that the Steelers were able to keep rolling with a new center to a comfortable lead. Were there any hiccups? Yes, when Roethlisberger fumbled a snap in the end zone and recovered for a Jets safety that cut Pittsburgh's lead to 24-12 in the fourth quarter. After the ensuing drive resulted in a New York touchdown, things suddenly became more than a little dicey for the Steelers.

Although Roethlisberger insisted that he had faith in Legursky, based largely on the work they had done together in practice, he did feel compelled to tell everyone else in the huddle to "relax" after Pouncey's exit. Legursky, according to Roethlisberger, proceeded to make the correct calls the rest of the way.

After the game, Pouncey was on crutches. It would be reasonable to question whether he will recover in time to be ready to start in his first Super Bowl, even though he said, "I know in my heart that I'm playing in that game."

With or without Pouncey, the Steelers still can likely count on their offensive line being a topic of conversation between now and Super Bowl XLV. The media will ask and wonder about its ability to hold up against the Green Bay Packers' blitzing defense. They will talk about the enormous challenge that Pittsburgh's blockers will face from the scheming of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and star outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

And Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will be among the first to point to the Jets game and tell reporters what he told them about his offensive linemen Sunday night: "They don't blink."

Roethlisberger is going to be equally quick and emphatic with his support.

"I'm the biggest fan of our offensive line regardless of how much bad stuff is written about them and how supposedly terrible they are," Roethlisberger said. "They are a great group. They are a very close group. They will do anything for me, which makes it a little more special.

"They find ways to fill in and step up and play for each other. I can't say enough good things about those guys."

A performance like the one they had to help the Steelers reach their eighth Super Bowl should keep him well stocked with superlatives.

Observation points

» The NFL has to be thrilled that the teams with the best-traveling fans in the league are in the Super Bowl.

» Nolan Carroll, a reserve cornerback and kick returner for Miami, studied plenty of videotape of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers before the Dolphins' 23-20 victory on Oct. 17. The Dolphins' defensive focus, he told me during an interview on Sirius NFL Radio, was on Rodgers' mobility.

"When we were game-planning him, our thing was to keep him inside the pocket and let him stay still," Carroll said. "Don't let him move around and use his feet, because you saw in the Atlanta (playoff) game how he was just able to get out of the pocket and be so elusive and make plays down the field. That's the special thing about him.

"Most quarterbacks, if they get out of the pocket, they're thinking about running. When he gets out of the pocket, he's thinking about throwing downfield. He wants that big play. He wants to give it to his receivers because he trusts them. He knows that, if he throws it up, they'll be the ones to catch it."

» I'm with Bears center Olin Kreutz. The team needs to give coach Lovie Smith a contract extension. He has definitely earned one. Smith faces some big challenges, including the heavy criticism quarterback Jay Cutler faces through the offseason for his injury shortened performance (and the lack of interest he seemed to show after leaving the game) against the Packers. But he can handle them.

» Responding to a question about what has changed with Green Bay's defense since last year's 51-45 playoff loss to Arizona, this is what linebacker Desmond Bishop told me during a Sirius NFL Radio interview before the defense allowed 14 points in the NFC Championship Game: "A lot of it was just being new to the defense (which coordinator Dom Capers converted from a 4-3 to a 3-4 after being hired in 2009), but this year I think we're a lot smarter and we communicate a lot better. That eliminates 99 percent of the mistakes, and that way we can be effective and not give up as many points."

» Bishop on Rodgers: "I think one of the biggest qualities of a leader and of a quarterback is confidence, and Aaron has it in abundance and it shows and I think it breathes through everybody else."

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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