The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

September 9, 2013

Steelers backups must step up after injuries to key personnel

PITTSBURGH — Maurkice Pouncey limped through the Pittsburgh Steelers practice facility on Monday, the torn ligaments in his knee wrapped in bandages and his season over. The three-time Pro Bowl center remained in high spirits – as always – though he might have been one of the few in the building.

The long road back for Pouncey will begin later this week when he undergoes surgery. The same for linebacker Larry Foote, who is also done for the year after rupturing his right biceps while trying to tackle Tennessee’s Chris Johnson in the fourth quarter of a 16-9 loss.

For a team that preaches “next man up” when faced with adversity, at the moment “next man left” might be more appropriate.

While the Steelers will have somebody snap the ball to Ben Roethlisberger Monday when they play at Cincinnati, whoever it is will be a significant downgrade over a player considered one of the NFL’s elite.

Kelvin Beachum filled in after Pouncey was carted off the field eight plays into the season, the first time in Beachum’s football career he’s worked at center during an actual game.

Though Beachum is arguably the most versatile player left on the line – he saw time at both tackle and guard during the preseason – the Steelers signed veteran Fernando Velasco to a one-year deal on Monday, according to agent Brian Ayrault.

The 28-year-old Velasco started 16 games for Tennessee last season, including 13 at center. He’ll be given every opportunity to take over for Pouncey on a line that will try to regroup without its emotional leader.

“It’s going to be tough,” running back Isaac Redman said. “Pouncey is the heart of our offensive line. We’ve got to have guys step up.”

Even if Redman isn’t one of them. Handed the starting job out of camp after rookie Le’Veon Bell sprained his right foot, Redman fumbled twice – including once into the end zone – and managed just nine yards on eight carries.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin grew so frustrated he sent third-down back LaRod Stephens-Howling into the game, only to have the return specialist tear the ACL in his knee. Like Pouncey, Johnstown’s Stephens-Howling is done for the year.

Searching for healthy bodies, the Steelers re-signed Jonathan Dwyer on Monday. Dwyer led Pittsburgh with 623 yards rushing in 2012 before being cut when the roster was trimmed to 53 players.

He wasn’t picked up after being waived and there appeared to be no hard feelings as he walked into the team’s complex.

“Glad to be back home,” Dwyer tweeted.

Dwyer’s face is familiar. Not so much for the man charged with replacing Foote.

Kion Wilson was out of the NFL last year before making the Steelers following a spectacular preseason on special teams. Now he finds himself replacing a 12-veteran who received all the defensive calls from coordinator Dick LeBeau and served as the chatty quarterback of the league’s top-ranked defense.

Wilson played sparingly in 2010 with San Diego and in 2011 but will have to get a quick grasp of LeBeau’s intricate schemes while Lawrence Timmons takes over Foote’s duties as playcaller.

Though Foote will be missed, the Steelers still have a defensive roster filled with players who have learned how to cope when things go wrong.

“Larry’s a tough guy to replace, but Kion has gone through our camp,” Timmons said. “He’s picked up our defense, and (linebackers coach Keith) Butler’s going to do a good job prepping him for this game. Coach LeBeau’s doing this for a while, so he’ll have a defense for whoever fills in. He’ll be able to run the defense.

The bigger concerns lie on offense after the Steelers managed just 195 total yards, allowed five sacks and turned it over twice.

What Pittsburgh viewed as a strength over the summer now appears to be a question mark with Pouncey out until 2014.

Beachum spent a portion of the preseason serving as a third tight end then spent four quarters cradling the ball in his hands and looking across the line of scrimmage at defensive tackles.

“You’ve got to be a football player at the end of the day,” Beachum said. “You’re paid to be here. You’ve got to make it work.”

Notes: The Steelers signed K Shayne Graham on Monday as insurance after K Shaun Suisham sustained a mild hamstring strain during warmups on Sunday. Graham converted 31 of 38 field goals last year for Houston. ... The AFC North is a combined 0-4 after Week 1.

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