Friday, January 28, 2011

At the Center of It All: Get Well, Maurkice Pouncey. We Believe in You, Doug Legursky.

So much to discuss; so little time.

The Super Bowl, front and center, with more than enough there to occupy all our time, including lots of discussion regarding a very formidable Packers team, the game itself and all that leads up to it, including story lines, coaches, matchups, schemes, history, etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.

Additionally, there are plenty of other interesting topics that merit discussion, including: the emerging controversy surrounding Thursday's sudden resignation (firing?) of Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher; the building turmoil regarding the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement); the public divisiveness NFL among players (Antonio Cromartie and Matt Hasselbeck) over various issues, including the CBA; the pointless and stupid Pro Bowl on Saturday; the more interesting and much more competitive Senior Bowl this weekend; the simmering controversy over Jay Cutler and the seething vitriol directed at him from players and fans across the Twitterverse and Blogosphere; and so much more.

Where to begin?

As the The Good Witch of the North in The Wonderful Wziard of Oz said sweetly, "It's always best to begin at the beginning."

Which is, today ... at the "center" of all the action: Center, i.e., the guy who touches the ball on every offensive snap.

It's easy sometimes to forget that NFL players are people, too, complete with off-field lives, families, etc. They're not just replaceable avatars on your TV screen or two-dimensional caricatures to be manipulated in a video game.

We bring this up because of the injury situation and flood of emotions -- let alone the actual strategic/tactical football dynamics -- involving one of the Steelers' key players, center
Maurkice Pouncey, and the guy who in line to take his place on the offensive line in the Super Bowl, Doug Legursky.

Early in the AFC Championship Game last Sunday,
Maurkice Pouncey sustained what's been reported as a high ankle sprain and, possibly, a fractured bone. To say that Pouncey, a rookie, has been a stud all year is an understatement. He took hold of the position not only as a starter, but as a leader of the offensive line even during training camp, after the Steelers drafted him as a first-round draft pick last April out of the University of Florida (national college champions), where he was the consensus top center in all of college football.

Pouncey made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, which is rare, and he anchored what had become a glaring weakness during the past few years. Most NFL observers consider him the NFL's second-best center right now, just a hair behind All-Pro
Nick Mangold of the New York Jets (there's a Santonio Holmes connection here, as well, but that's another story for another time).

No doubt: Maurkice Pouncey has been an integral part of the Steelers' offense all season. He is the best center the Steelers have had since the great Dermontti Dawson (1988-2000), and he continues the Steelers' enviable decades-long legacy of excellence at the position.

This legacy extends all the way back to the mid-1960s, when Ray Mansfield ("The Old Ranger") moved from defensive tackle to center, where he started from 1964-76; through the Super Bowl teams of the late 1970s with Mike Webster, the legendary Hall of Famer (who some contend was the best center in NFL history and started from 1970-1990); and all the way through the 1990s with Dermontti Dawson, who is a finalist in this year's class of NFL Hall of Fame candidates; and then into the early 2000s, when
Jeff Hartings, a two-time Pro Bowler himself, manned the position and started for the Steelers on the team that won Super Bowl XL. Justin Hartwig, who started vs. the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, was pretty good, too.

No other NFL team matches the Steelers' lineage of excellence at center.

Now, this year, in stepped
Maurkice Pouncey to carry forward that heritage of excellence. Due to his injury, however, he will almost certainly miss the Super Bowl.

First, let's give Pouncey his due: Like Dawson and Webster before him, Pouncey brings a dimension to the offensive line that few centers can offer: Mobility.

Pouncey can run -- which enables him to swing out on off-tackle runs, rollouts, moving pockets, complex pass-protection schemes, etc. Additionally, Pouncey is massively strong enough to stand up against and neutralize the best nose tackles and defensive linemen in the NFL -- guys like Baltimore's All-Pro Haloti Ngata and, well, Green Bay's B.J. Raji, who made all the televised highlights last weekend by returning an interception for a touchdown in the NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears.

You don't just replace a guy like Pouncey.

Having said that,
Joey Porter's Pit Bulls are gonna say it right here: Doug Legursky is no slouch, and the Steelers will do just fine with him at center in Super Bowl XLV.

Granted, he's no Maurkice Pouncey. Legursky is no Pro Bowler. He wasn't a first-round draft choice. He doesn't hail from a big-time, national championship program. Indeed, throughout his time with the Steelers, many observers considered Legursky a fringe player, a journeyman of sorts.

Now, let's take a closer look at the guy Craig Wolfley calls "Bronco" Legursky (due to his part-time role as blocking fullback in short-yardage situtions) and who also calls Legursky "as good a backup center as there is in the NFL":

In April 2008, the Steelers signed Legursky as an undrafted free agent from Marshall University in West Virginia. That means he was a "street" free agent brought into training camp to see what he could do or, more likely, serve as cannon fodder on the offensive line. Even then, however,
Joey Porter's Pit Bulls liked Legursky and wrote about him as somebody to keep an eye on.*

The Steelers cut Legursky on June 28, 2008, before training camp even began. The Steelers brought him back to camp on Aug. 20, 2008 and cut him again (in the last last cut) on Aug. 30. Later in the season, on Oct. 30, the Steelers signed him to the always-tenuous practice squad. They invited him to training camp the following year. No guarantees, of course. By that point, coach
Mike Tomlin had let it be known he likes "positional flexibility" on the offensive line, and Legursky proved he could play capably at guard and center.

He's stuck around as a backup ever since. It's worth noting that as backup center, Legursky practices against the first-team defense, which means he goes against perennial Pro Bowler
Casey Hampton day after day. That'll make ya better, if it doesn't break ya first. Legursky's still around, and ...

Now, here he is: Starting center for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Imagine his flood of emotions as he runs onto the field in Dallas.

Legursky has prepared all his life for this moment. He may not have Pouncey's mobility (and, if by some chance Pouncey plays, even
he won't have his usual mobility), but at 6'1" and 325 pounds, Legursky has legitimate NFL-quality size, leverage and strength.

He also has motivation, something to prove. By all accounts, he is a student of the game, has prepared well, knows all the assignments and is seasoned enough by dint of hard work to know what he's doing. Never mind the two snap exchanges that went awry in the AFC Championship game. That's fixable, and he's right in the middle of two weeks of practice with Big Ben and the first-team offense.

Just to reiterate, Legursky has been around the Steelers long enough to know what he's doing, and he's plenty strong: While at Marshall University, he set the school's weight room records for the squat (705 lbs.) and the hang clean (430 lbs.). He also had a 4.9 time in the 40-yard dash, which is good, so he moves pretty well, too.

More telling, perhaps, is the most recent evidence that he's good enough to step in and do a serviceable job for the Steelers. Look no further than last Sunday, when Pouncey went down early in the game against the Jets: The Steelers' offensive line went on to help the team rack up the most rushing yards compiled this season (credit there mostly due, of course to Rashard, Isaac and Mewelde), and the O-line allowed just two sacks to a Jets' defense that took down Tom Brady five times the week before.

We feel bad that Maurkice Pouncey is injured and may not play in the Super Bowl. We feel optimistic, however, that Doug Legursky will much better than many people anticipate.

If we never hear his name during the game broadcast, he will have done his job.

Footnote: In advance of the NFL draft that same year (April 2008) Joey Porter's Pit Bulls wrote about wide receiver Jordy Nelson, currently with Green Bay, who we thought might look good in a Steelers' uniform. He's with the Pack now, so that's that. Nelson's very good, a size-speed match-up problem, but Nelson, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and the Packers' other receivers are something to discuss at some other time in the near future. They may be the best group of receivers -- with the best quarterback throwing to them -- that the Steelers have faced all season.