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Steelers’ offensive linemen realize versatility is key for unit to excel

August 18, 2016

When coach Mike Tomlin begins to trim the Steelers’ roster Aug. 30, he’ll have to make tough decisions about reserve offensive linemen.

“We’ve got a pretty solid group,” guard Chris Hubbard said. “Everybody is trying to fill in the gaps.”

The Steelers have a few offensive linemen capable of filling different positions. Among those looking to solidify a spot on the active roster are center/guard B.J. Finney and fourth-round draft pick Jerald Hawkins, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound tackle.

“It’s like this every year for our unit,” said Cody Wallace, a guard who started all 16 games at center last season when Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey was injured. “It’s a good thing for us because it makes us look good in games. It’s a tough decision for the GM (Kevin Colbert). Everyone has to play hard because they know if it doesn’t work out here, they’re get picked up by someone else.”

Hubbard and Wallace can play all five positions on the offensive front. And that versatility has virtually assured them of jobs, along with free agent tackle Ryan Harris.

Hubbard played only one snap at left tackle last season, when starter Alejandro Villanueva was banged up for one play against Cincinnati. It was a short audition, but a moment he was prepared for while on the practice squad.

“You always have to be prepared no matter what,” Hubbard said. “I think the coaches believe in me to go out there to play tackle, guard or center, or whatever they need me to do. They know I’m capable of doing it, and I’m willing to do it.”

Hubbard wasn’t overly pleased with his performance in a 30-17 loss to Detroit last Friday. He’s looking to use his hands better against Philadelphia on Friday night at Heinz Field.

“I feel confident going into second preseason game,” he said. “I didn’t use my hands well, but I’ll get it together.”

Hubbard is more than serviceable at center and tackle, but guard is his preferred duty. However, the 6-4, 295-pound native of Columbus, Ga., was a starter at both left and right tackle at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

“I’m willing to put my hand in the pile to do whatever,” said Hubbard, who also played center at UAB. “When I got here, they asked me if can play center.”

The Steelers are set at center with All-Pro Pouncey at full strength after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Hubbard’s focus has been at tackle.

“There’s a lot of speed on the outside (defensive ends and outside linebackers), and you have to be prepared for guys who run (the 40-yard dash) in 4.4,” Hubbard said. “And that’s the difference between the NFL and college. A lot of guys have different speeds and different technique they use nowadays.”

In the NFL, versatility on the offensive line has become a must. Injuries to key players have dictated the change, in part, because the league has held firm on not expanding the active roster.

“If you want to stick around in this league, you have to move up and down the line,” Wallace said. ”(Hubbard) literally plays up and down the line, even a little tight end. He has plenty of value for this team.

“Hubbard is mild-mannered, but he plays with an edge. I think he’s a guy who’s going to play in the league for a long time because of his value and he’s capable of playing at a starter level. He just needs to get enough reps to hammer down one position.”

Of course, the same can be said about Wallace. He started all 16 games in place of Pouncey, who has suffered season-ending injuries in two of the past three seasons.

“It’s nice to step in and show the team I can play,” Wallace said. “I’ll step into any role, and I’ll give it all I’ve got.”

Wallace stepped in nicely for Pouncey, and Villanueva filled in at left tackle when Kelvin Beachum was lost for the season with a knee injury.

“You need depth, and unfortunately we’ve faced some adversity with injuries,” Wallace said. “It’s a long grind in camp, so you have to take advantage of your chances.

“You always have to put good stuff on tape. You can’t just get your 15 of 20 snaps and get out of there. It’s a matter of trusting yourself.”

Finney, who failed to survive the final cut last year, has played guard and center during training camp. He credits much of the second unit’s success to offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who demands knowledge of every offensive line position.

“They say, ‘Hey, we want to do this,’ and Munchak makes it work,” Finney said. “He comes to us and says, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do,’ and being able to teach techniques with that and adjust game plans and stuff like that, he’s an amazing coach.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.