Maurkice Pouncey is only 21 years old.
That bears repeating: Maurkice Pouncey is ONLY 21 years old.
The Steelers’ first-round pick, Pouncey became just the third Steelers rookie offensive lineman to start a season opener, but he certainly didn’t look like a rookie in Sunday’s 15-9 victory over Atlanta.
When Pouncey was taken with the 18th overall pick in April, there was little doubt about his physical abilities. At 6-foot-4 and 304 pounds, Pouncey had the raw talent to play at a high level, possibly even from the start of the season. The biggest question was if he could handle all of the pre-snap responsibilities that go along with being the center, as the position has the difficult task of calling out all of the blocking assignments depending on what the defense is showing.
It wasn’t a problem for Pouncey in the preseason, he showed enough to beat out incumbent Justin Hartwig, who was subsequently released. And it wasn’t a problem on Sunday.
The new guy even impressed his most important critic: Coach Mike Tomlin.
“I thought he did a nice job,” said Tomlin, who almost always waits to view film footage before assessing a performance. “I thought he had a great demeanor. I don’t think he miscalled a thing all night. You saw those guys move around quite a bit. They’re very multiple in terms of what they do. The quality of his work, the physical quality of his work, we’ll leave that to the video. In terms of his demeanor, in terms of his pre-snap declaration and things, he played like a veteran football player. And really, that’s why he’s in there, because he’s not playing like a rookie.”
Pouncey was pleased with himself as well.
“I felt real comfortable today,” he said. “I had a real good game, and I’m trying to build from there.”
While joining Tom Ricketts (1989) and Marvel Smith (2000) as the only Steelers rookies to start the season opener, Pouncey also had to help break in an inexperienced quarterback. With Ben Roethlisberger serving a four-game suspension and Byron Leftwich out with a knee injury, Dennis Dixon made his second career start.
When it comes to the offensive line, playing center for the Steelers – a position previously manned by legends such as Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson – is about as high-profile as it gets.
Pouncey does rely on Trai Essex for any help he needs.
“Trai’s my right guard, so he’s always right next to me,” Pouncey said. “He helps me out so much. I’m so happy to have him there. He’s a real smart football player.”
Essex, who prides himself on knowing the assignments for all of the offensive line positions, said Pouncey needs very little help.
“He’s like playing against a vet,” said Essex, who is in his sixth season. “He’s a rookie. He’s wise beyond his years in a football sense just cause he knows what to do. He’s a football player in every sense of the word. It’s natural for him. There was no rookie jitters. He didn’t make any rookie mistakes. He played a hell of a game. And props to him, because he worked hard this offseason because he wanted to play, he wanted to start. He took a good man out of there in order for that to happen, so he had to be that good. There’s no time for him to be a rookie, and he definitely deserves everything that’s coming to him.”
The Steelers offensive line wasn’t overpowering by any means – nearly half of Rashard Mendenhall’s 120 rushing yards came on his 50-yard touchdown run in overtime – but it also wasn’t the glaring weakness that it has been in the recent past, even though Dixon was sacked three times.
Considering that the Steelers lost tackle Willie Colon before the start of training camp to a torn Achilles’ tendon and left tackle Max Starks to an ankle injury near the end of the third quarter on Sunday, the performance of the offensive line was admirable.
Essex said that new offensive line coach Sean Kugler and Pouncey deserve a lot of credit for that.
“He came in naturally and just took control of the situation,” Essex said of the rookie center. “Coach Kugs did a great job of coaching him up. It was just a matter of going out there and putting it all together, and that’s what we did.”
That could be a great sign of things to come for the Steelers.
Eric Knopsnyder is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.