FORT WORTH, Texas – Even if "the standard is the standard," the players still have to be capable, or those five words are just another phrase that can look good in a frame to decorate the locker room wall.
The Steelers are just a couple of days away from Super Bowl XLV, and the reasons for that are many. One of those reasons definitely is the ability of their offensive linemen to play multiple positions and still function at a winning level as a group.
Maurkice Pouncey has not practiced at all since sustaining an ankle injury in the first series of the AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets, and the Steelers have only Friday's workout remaining.
"It's getting to be the witching hour for Maurkice," Coach Mike Tomlin said after Thursday's practice. "He's going to have to show us something very soon."
Assuming Pouncey cannot show Tomlin enough, Doug Legursky will start at center, and Trai Essex will serve as the backup there. Legursky also has played both guard spots at times in the games that got the Steelers here, while Essex has played both guard spots and both tackle spots already.
Offensive line coach Sean Kugler began preparing for this very possibility about 10 months ago.
"It starts early with minicamps and OTAs, where you start training guys to play not only different positions but also to play on the right and left sides," said Kugler. "These guys have been doing that. When we do drill work, we don't just separate them by right side and left side, we interchange them. So then when you ask them to step in, hey, move to right guard for a series, it's not a shock to them. They've done it so much that it's kind of second nature to them. If you train a guy at left tackle and say, hey, get over there and play right tackle, it's tough. But if you're doing it consistently throughout practice, and in the offseason when you have a lot of time to spend with these guys …"
Kugler is a teacher, and his curriculum on the benefits of versatility is equal parts football and economics. Teaching the football aspects of it can come, for example, during a film session in which coach and player study the roles of multiple positions on every play. The economic part comes in because, in the NFL anymore, guys who aren't versatile aren't on rosters coming out of training camp. No versatility has come to mean no paycheck.
"Everybody has a comfort zone," said Kugler. "It's not an easy thing to do to play both sides, or to play different positions. But the first meeting we have with the offensive linemen we explain to them that there are only seven guys active on game days and there's a very realistic situation where we could be down to five in an instant – and that happened to us three or four times just this year. So you gotta be position flexible and you gotta be able to play guard-tackle or center-guard, and do it on both sides."
Of the Steelers starters on Sunday against Green Bay, Jonathan Scott has played both left and right tackle, with a bit of guard sprinkled in during a couple of emergencies; and Ramon Foster has played both guard spots, with a bit of tackle sprinkled in during another of those emergencies. Legursky and Essex have been everywhere, even in the backfield or as an extra tight end.
"They knew this from day one, and so the guys who wanted to put in the work to accept that challenge to make the team understood that," said Kugler. "That was their best chance to make the team."
During a couple of early-season wins over Tennessee and Tampa Bay, the offensive line was stretched to its seams. The heat took such a toll that Kugler was shuffling players in and out of the game, sometimes from series-to-series, and other times even play-to-play within the same series. At one point, quarterback Charlie Batch said he asked Legursky whether he was at center or guard after one heat-related shuffle because Batch didn't want to line up under a guard for the exchange and get added to an NFL Films bloopers reel.
"In the situation of Tennessee, that was an unbelievably hot game, and we knew it would be going into it," said Kugler. "We rotated that week during practice leading up to the game, and we also did the same thing before going down to Tampa, because that was a brutally hot game, too. It was neat to see, because the guys who were starting didn't see it as getting playing time taken away, and the backups really delved into that role. They were excited about it, knowing they were going to be able to play. And it worked out."
It has worked out, pretty much all season. And the Steelers believe it can again on Sunday against the Packers.