By BOB LABRIOLA
Super Bowl XLIII Full Coverage TAMPA – Some coaches might chafe at being asked the same question over and over and over again during Super Bowl week. Then there's Mike Tomlin.
During Wednesday morning's media session, Tomlin was asked this: When you were hired, Alan Faneca was unhappy with his contract and there was a question about how his leaving would impact the offensive line's ability to become a solid unit. How has the offensive line answered the call?
"As far as I'm concerned, that's still the question as we sit here today," said Tomlin. "We are always going to be a team in the process of growth, jelling if you will, and coming together. I thought our guys have done a nice job of focusing on the things they can control – their level of preparation and their level of cohesiveness. Along the way, we've had bumps in the road."
Four days before Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin was issuing a challenge to his offensive line in a way that was not demeaning to his players but was pointed just the same.
"We've lost some guys and had to adjust the plan," Tomlin continued, "but the focus has been consistent. The guys come into the building every day understanding that we need to get better individually, we need to get better collectively, and the only way to do that is to put your hand in the pile, if you will. That's a group that does. They spend a lot of time together formally and informally. They take a great deal of pride in how they play. They've been highly criticized, and I've appreciated that. It has helped me do my job. Please continue to do that. We'll squeeze one more performance out of them. Hopefully it's a winning one."
Injuries landed Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons on the injured reserve list, and both of them were starters on opening day. When Sean Mahan didn't work out as the team's center in 2007, Justin Hartwig was signed during the offseason to stabilize that spot. Alan Faneca left in March 2008 as an unrestricted free agent.
Add it all up, and the Steelers will open Super Bowl XLIII with four "new" offensive linemen – Max Starks at left tackle in place of Smith, Chris Kemoeatu at left guard in place of Faneca, Hartwig at center, and Darnell Stapleton at right guard in place of Simmons. Only right tackle Willie Colon is in the same spot he played in 2007.
"We had rebuilt it back in the spring and summer (of 2008), and then we lost two key ingredients and had to re-do the whole thing," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "These were guys who were sitting in the back of the room for a couple of years when Faneca and all those guys were starting in the Super Bowl."
After opening the regular season with wins over Houston and at Cleveland, the offensive line bore the brunt of the criticism after the Philadelphia Eagles sacked Ben Roethlisberger nine times and limited Willie Parker to 20 yards rushing on 13 carries. Even though the breakdowns and mental errors were spread over the entire offensive unit, the linemen had the finger pointed at them.
"They've been underdogs all year, and I think they like that," said Roethlisberger. "They thrive on that adversity."
They also have been thriving of late, maybe because of the mid-week sessions at Hartwig's house.
So much of solid offensive line play revolves around communication and knowing what the guys next to you will do in certain situations, and to promote that Hartwig began hosting "pizza parties," in which all of the linemen gathered and watched videotape together.
"They have a nice bond," said Arians. "I think when you get to the offensive line, cohesiveness is sometimes overlooked because people want to talk so much about talent. But those guys are so close, That closeness, I think, has brought that success."
Added Hartwig, "We're practicing hard, but we spend a lot of time together off the field. I think that has helped us out a lot."
It has helped Roethlisberger perform in a way the team needs during the playoffs as well. In two games – against the Chargers and Ravens – Roethlisberger has no turnovers and has been sacked only five times.
"They have played the underdog card all year," said Roethlisberger, "and they should."