Steelers laying it on the line
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer

PITTSBURGH - To say that the Steelers' offensive line got embarrassed last season in Cleveland would be an understatement.

The Steelers managed just 77 yards rushing and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked eight times in a 13-6 loss at Cleveland last December, a defeat that dropped Pittsburgh to 6-7 and all but ended its playoff hopes.

Avoiding a repeat of that effort when the Steelers (11-4) head to Cleveland (5-10) Sunday will be a big focus for Pittsburgh.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has seen some good signs in recent weeks, particularly in a 22-17 loss to the Jets last week.

"I was extremely pleased with the communication because that was probably the most complicated blitz team that we had seen all year," Arians said of the game against the Jets. "With the confusion and the solid pass rushers that they have, I was really pleased with the running game. I thought we blocked a really good front all night."

The Steelers can clinch the AFC North title and a bye in the first round of the playoffs with a victory over the Browns or a Baltimore loss at Cincinnati.

"(A win) gets you a bye and more time to rest," said Roethlisberger. "We still have a big game coming up. We have to take care of business."

The Steelers know they could see some similar defensive philosophies from Cleveland and what they saw used by the Jets. Cleveland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is the twin brother of Jets coach Rex Ryan and both use similar strategies to that of their father, famed creator of the 46 defense, Buddy Ryan.

Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, the Steelers have changed offensive linemen indiscriminately this season, using five different starting lineups.

But in the past six games, in which the Steelers have gone 5-1, they've settled on lineup of Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams at tackle, Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster at guard, and rookie Maurkice Pouncey at center.

Of that group, only Kemoeatu was a starter for the Steelers in 2009, and only he and Foster were with the team last season.

Pouncey, the team's No. 1 draft pick, and Adams, who was signed hours before the start of training camp after being released by Dallas, have been the only mainstays this season, starting all 15 games.

While the Steelers were hopeful Pouncey could help solidify their line, they've been pleasantly surprised with the stability Adams has given them at right tackle.

A 13-year veteran, the 35-year-old Adams had played his entire career with the Cowboys at left tackle. Because of that and his advanced age, the Steelers were concerned Adams would struggle playing right tackle, a need that arose when starter Willie Colon suffered a torn Achilles' tendon two weeks before training camp opened.

"I had him totally pegged wrong. He's the hardest-working guy we've got," Arians said of Adams. "He's got a lot of pride. I go back to the first preseason game when he gave up a sack. He stayed after practice 45 minutes every night in training camp making the defensive backs rush against him so he could block speed rushers.

"That showed me right there that he had what it takes to play on the right side. He just brings some toughness and some savvy old veteran leadership to help the young guys."

The Steelers hope that leadership pays dividends in the postseason.

"I like the improvement that we've made," Arians said before admitting, "But we've still got a long way to go."

[HIGH-LIGHT]Odds and end zones[/HIGH-LIGHT]

With Kansas City's clinching of the AFC West title on Sunday, the Steelers' 2011 opponents have now been set - barring an expansion by the league to an 18-game schedule. The Steelers will host Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Tennessee, New England, Seattle and St. Louis. They will travel to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Francisco and Arizona.