There was a lot that didn’t go so well for the Cincinnati Bengals in their season opener Sunday, but things were even worse for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who in addition to dropping a 16-9 decision to the Tennessee Titans also lost three players to season-ending injuries.
Two of the three players were starters in linebacker Larry Foote, a 12-year veteran, and center Maurkice Pouncey, who has been voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
“He means a lot to their team because he’s one of the best in the business,” Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “Missing someone like that on their side is a big blow to them. But they have other guys who will come in and try to fill his shoes.”
The man the Steelers are turning to is Kelvin Beachum, a second-year player who played tackle at SMU and is listed as a guard on the Pittsburgh roster.
When the 6-foot-3, 303-pound Beachum ran on to the field to replace Pouncey early in the first quarter Sunday, he found himself playing center for the first time since his pee wee days.
“Relative to the work that he had leading up to the game, I thought he was above the line and from a performance standpoint,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Beachum. “We’ll expect him to perform better this week given the opportunity to prepare.
“He has the correct sense of urgency for a young guy and I think that allows him to learn and get better,” Tomlin continued.” Obviously, he’s a sharp guy. He’s proven to be capable of doing multiple things.”
In addition to simply learning a new position, Beachum must learn all of the line calls so he also can take over Pouncey’s role as the guy who sets the blocking schemes.
“He knows his stuff and he’ll be just fine,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh reporters Wednesday.
The bigger issue, Roethlisberger said, is for him and Beachum to continue to get comfortable with each other.
“It is going to take some time,” he said. “We’re going to get as much work as we can in. We were off to the side in between periods trying to work on silent count and just different snaps and things. That’s obviously the most important part of every play, getting the quarterback the ball. So that’s what we’re going to emphasize and make sure we have down pat.”
On Monday the Steelers signed Fernando Velasco, a true center who spent the previous four years with Tennessee and started all 16 games in 2012. But it appears Beachum will get the start against the Bengals.
“I think (Beachum) did a pretty good job from watching the film,” Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins. “You still have to come out on your ‘A’ game because they’re going to be fired up to come out and play, especially a Monday night football game.”
The Bengals don’t need to look too far back for proof of that as the only game Pouncey missed last season was a nationally televised one against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, and the Steelers still rushed for 167 yards on the way to a 24-17 victory.
Johnathan Dwyer ran for a career-high 122 yards that night, and the Steelers re-signed the running back Monday after starter Isaac Redman lost two fumbles Sunday and backup LaRod Stephens-Howling suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Pouncey’s replacement the night Dwyer ran all over the Bengals was veteran Doug Legursky, but this time it will be an inexperienced second-year guy in Beachum who is not only making his first career NFL start but his first start at center in 15 years.
“It’s always exciting when you get to go against a young person or someone who doesn’t have experience,” Peko said. “We’ve got to lick our chops and get after it and make the most of that opportunity.”