By Teresa Varley
Offensive tackle Willie Colon didn't have to be back in Pittsburgh working out until the team starts OTA's (organized team activities) today, but that hasn't stopped him from hitting the weight room the last few weeks.
Most of the starters have been given a little reprieve, not having to report as early as the younger players because of the long season. But Colon wanted to get a jump on things so that he is ready to go full tilt today.
"I have been working out, but trying to take it easy," said Colon, shortly after a workout at the team's practice facility. "I am easing myself back into it. I am not getting over anxious. I want to keep my body in shape and be ready when it's time to go."
Colon, who was a restricted free agent and signed a one-year tender this year, knows how important the offseason is for the line, which saw a lot of changes last year. Among those changes were a new center in Justin Hartwig and two new guards in Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton. Stapleton took over for Kendall Simmons, who was injured early in the season and waived after the season ended.
There were some adjustments to be made and developing chemistry was a big key with the in-season changes.
"That was important," said Colon. "For the most part it was all five of us being on the same page. We had to ask Darnell to step up mid-way. Justin had to get used to the system. It was Chris' first year. We had to move Max once Marvel went down on the left. There were a lot of obstacles along the way. The biggest thing we learned was we were able to stay together, not listen to anybody else and get it done."
Another change was Max Starks returning to the starting lineup at left tackle after Marvel Smith was sidelined with a back injury. Smith has since signed with the San Francisco 49ers after the free agent was not offered a contract.
"It was extremely hard to not only lose Kendall, but also Marvel," said Colon. "He was our left tackle, he was Ben's (Roethlisberger) blind side and had been there for so long, a key anchor on the line. To lose him at a part of the year when we started to catch momentum was really tough. That's what quality depth is all about. To have Max and Trai (Essex) and guys who can step up and perform is big. Max did a great job this year."
One thing the line has working for them going into 2009 is the same group that started in Super Bowl XLIII will be back, plus other veterans, despite several of them being free agents at the end of the season. Colon signed his tender, Kemoeatu re-signed, Starks was designated the franchise player and Essex also re-signed.
"I think that was the most important thing this year," said Colon. "It gives you more momentum to go back next year and get it done. The only new faces will probably be young faces."
With all of the new faces on the line last year, Colon quickly found himself one of the veterans there, despite it being only his second season starting.
"It was weird to see guys look around and see who is going to lead," said Colon. "I try to not lead by talking, but by actions. I thought I did a fair job of that this year. I think the experience Justin had being with the Titans when they were in the playoffs and being with Carolina, he brought a lot of professional wisdom and he helped us out with some of the things he has been through. We were able to anchor down and get it done."
Hartwig helped them work on the chemistry by having the offensive linemen get together on a regular basis to have dinner and watch film in the evenings. For a group so new to each other, it was perfect.
"The biggest thing for us all season was us being on the same page," said Colon. "Doing those film sessions and being together, thinking what a guy thinks, seeing how a guy sees things, how can I adjust? For Darnell and I it was about being on the same page. A lot of times when you do that you know each other without even talking. Some of the great lines do things without communicating. They just know. I think that's what we are on the verge of becoming. Little things like that help you get to that along the way."
The line took their share of heat last year after Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times during the regular season, but they also heard words of praise in the moments after the team won the Super Bowl when Roethlisberger gave them a shout out in front of a full stadium and national television audience.
"He loves us, we love him back," said Colon of the relationship the line has with him. "He understands we get a lot of undue criticism. It is what it is. We don't complain. At first we were upset about it. We were taking so much heat. But if you give up as many sacks as you do and don't run the ball effectively, you are going to get that criticism.
"We adjusted. We appreciated the shout out and we are Super Bowl champs."