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Steelers’ Backups Step Up Along Offensive Line

It’s not often that you play four backup offensive linemen in a game and actually perform well on the offensive side of the ball, let alone end up winning the game. But that is actually what the Pittsburgh Steelers did on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, who in spite of their general ineptitude, do at least have a fairly stout run defense.

Yet the Browns were frequently unable to stop the Steelers’ rushing attack, which featured a lead back who was only signed off the street less than two weeks prior to that, which speaks at least as much to the quality of the blocking as to anything else.

Of course, part of the process was contrived. Having little of realistic achievements in front of them, the Steelers decided to rest their two most accomplished starters along the offensive line, those being six-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and three-time Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro.

Pouncey had previously only missed snaps this season at the tail ends of a couple of blowout games, while DeCastro had up through Week 16 been on the field for every single offensive snap—and for every single snap of the field goal unit, as well.

It is becoming something of an annual tradition now that Pouncey sits in the regular season finale and B.J. Finney is given the opportunity to start a game at center, the position that he primarily played while in college. He has now made five career starts at left guard and two at center.

Of course, he didn’t finish that second start, suffering an injury in the first half, which required the services of Chris Hubbard. Having now focused his attention on playing tackle—starting at right tackle for the majority of the season—Hubbard had been passed over for the opportunity to start at right guard, that honor instead going to Matt Feiler.

Feiler, a first-year player in his fourth season in the NFL, having spent the previous three years on practice squads, had minimal playing experience in meaningful games prior to Sunday, yet the coaching staff still felt confident in his ability to perform, and he did.

Hubbard, when he wasn’t botching the snap exchange, did his job at center as well, in spite of the fact that he likely has gotten very few reps there this season. And Finney held his own prior to suffering the injury that took him out of the game.

But he was not the only backup lineman on the field, as second-year tackle Jerald Hawkins continued to be used as the tackle-eligible tight end, a role that he conceded back to Hubbard when Marcus Gilbert returned from his suspension.

Hawkins had a bit of a rough game, but that was insubstantial in comparison to the performances of the interior backups. Hubbard’s snap issues notwithstanding, which frankly killed drives, he, Finney, and Feiler delivered against the Browns, and the collective performance speaks to how skilled, and how well-coached, this offensive line group is from top to bottom.

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