The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing in their season finale, for the second time in three years, on the verge of a playoff berth, but needing assistance. It is also the second time in three years during which they will have ended the season without All-Pro starting center Maurkice Pouncey.
Whether or not the Steelers manage to advance, they will not play a snap this season with their most highly-paid lineman after Pouncey suffered a torn Achilles during the preseason. They had only eight snaps to begin the 2013 season before a friendly fire incident on a running play resulted in a torn ACL for the center.
Back then, the team didn’t really have much of a contingency plan. The backup center on final cut down day was John Malecki, a bit of a journeyman former undrafted free agent. When the Steelers managed to claim Cody Wallace off waivers, it was him, but when Pouncey was lost in the opener, they looked for another option.
Fernando Velasco started the majority of the season, beginning the week after he was signed and leading up until he, too, suffered a torn Achilles. Wallace finished out the final few games of the season, earning himself a new contract in what was the first extensive playing time of his career, even though he was a veteran fourth-round draft pick.
Wallace has filled in for the entire year this season, playing, if I’m not mistaken, every snap, and doing so, at the very least, with effort and enthusiasm. While it would be hard to attribute any one loss to an offensive lineman, however, it would not be hard to imagine this offense running more efficiently with Pouncey under center.
Certainly, the veteran’s athleticism would have expanded the playbook and improved the blocking in space. He would have undoubtedly drawn fewer penalties. And he assuredly would have been better at picking up stunts over the middle.
He is, after all, an All-Pro, which means that he is among the best at his position. And he has been recognized as an All-Pro in every season in which he has played a meaningful number of snaps, which is four out of his first six seasons since entering the starting lineup as a rookie in 2010.
The good news is that Pouncey bounced back from his torn ACL to have an excellent 2014 campaign, one that I would put up as the best year of his entire career, and there is no reason to think that he will not be able to bounce back from this latest injury in a similar fashion and continue to play for the Steelers at an elite level.
Truthfully, the Steelers have done well for themselves without him this season, at least more often than not. They have been very successful running the ball and in limiting sacks. But this simply means that they could have played on another level with Pouncey in the lineup. Mike Tomlin has been oddly closed-lipped about his status over the course of the season, but I have no doubt that he will return to form in 2016.