TAMPA — The Steelers' offensive linemen could be called their offensive maligned men.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took 46 of the team's 49 sacks in the regular season; the team total was fourth-most in the NFL. It hasn't gotten much better in the postseason, when Big Ben has been dropped five times in two games.
Though it's true Roethlisberger hangs on to the football too long, the criticism has been piling on the Steelers' offensive line.
To that end, coach Mike Tomlin would like to thank you.
"I've appreciated that," Tomlin said. "It's helped me do my job. Please continue to do that. We'll squeeze one more performance out of them. Hopefully, it's a winning one."
Many consider the offensive line to be the Steelers' weak link but, to be fair, the unit has been a work in progress this season.
Injuries have been a significant factor. Right guard Kendall Simmons tore his Achilles' tendon in the fourth game, forcing the Steelers to turn to second-year pro Darnell Stapleton, who was inactive for every game as a rookie.
Tackle Max Starks out of Florida was a versatile reserve until starting left tackle Marvel Smith became inactive for the Oct. 5 game at Jacksonville and eventually was placed on injured reserve with a back injury.
Attrition also has contributed. Longtime center Jeff Hartings retired, and five-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca signed as a free agent with the New York Jets.
"It is what it is. We don't run away from that," Tomlin said. "The expectation doesn't change for us. Along the way, we've got to find ways to win football games. … I think this group has responded to those challenges, held a standard and provided winning performances for us.
"We don't worry about the style points. People are going to say what they are going to say. When you have the No. 1 defense in football, somebody's got to be the weak link. They've been chosen to be identified as that. But we are a team. That doesn't drive us. We're not concerned about that."
When you think about Steelers football, you think about Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis pounding the ball relentlessly inside with a smashmouth running game. But that's simply not the identity Tomlin's team has forged this season.
The Steelers reached the Super Bowl riding Roethlisberger's right arm. So a lack of balance on offense has inflated the sack numbers. The quarterback understands and has never pointed fingers.
"They have done a great job," Roethlisberger said. "Like I have said before, they are kind of a thrown-together group that has been playing some great defenses and trying to figure out blitzes. I'm just really proud of the way that they have stepped up and come together. They have taken it upon themselves to protect me and silence the critics.
"I'm kind of the old guy and can take the big brother role. I want them to know how much I care about them. They're my livelihood. They protect me."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]