PITTSBURGH - A fine line exists between winning and losing in the National Football League.
Whether or not the Steelers have one remains to be seen.
While most eyes were on Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed and other young players trying to make names for themselves in the preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night at Heinz Field, the Steelers' patchwork starting offensive line performed OK out of the spotlight.
The line was the most criticized unit for the Steelers during last season's Super Bowl run, but when a team wins a Super Bowl, how much criticism does it really deserve?
The line helped give up 49 sacks in 2008 and was part of a rushing attack that averaged 3.7 yards per carry, the Steelers' worst effort on the ground since their 6-10 season of 2003.
But the line seemed to improve as the '08 season unfolded, and all five starters of the final 11 regular-season games and three playoff games returned for this year.
It was too good to be true, though.
Center Justin Hartwig hasn't practiced much in training camp due to an injured toe, and right guard Darnell Stapleton recently had knee surgery. It's still unclear on when either of those two will be ready for action.
In their place on Thursday were first-year center Doug Legursky, who spent all of last year on the practice squad, and fifth-year guard/tackle Trai Essex, who hasn't started a regular-season game since his rookie year.
The starting unit only had a couple of series together against the Cardinals before Essex, Max Starks, Willie Colon and Chris Kemoeatu went to the bench at the beginning of the second quarter.
In the little action they saw, Starks was beaten by Arizona linebacker Chike Okeafor a couple of times, Colon lined up incorrectly once, and the offense was able to pick up three first downs on two possessions. They opened a hole for Mendenhall on a third-and-1 play.
"We still have some things to work on,'' Starks said. "We need to shore up some protection things. I need to focus more myself. Now that we will have this first game out of our systems, we will know our expectations on our play.''
One may have given the unit an average grade in its first outing. In the grade scheme of things, an average grade isn't too bad because it won a Super Bowl last year.
Backups Tony Hills, Ramon Foster, Kraig Urbik and Jeremy Parquet teamed with Legursky for the second quarter and helped lead the Steelers to a field goal. The Steelers also mixed in ex-IUP tackle Jason Capizzi and ex-Penn Stater A.Q. Shipley in the second half and recently signed veteran center Alex Stepanovich.
What the line needs the most right now is time together to start gaining some consistency. As soon as the five last year became familiar with each other, the better it performed.
"I think we communicated very well tonight,'' Starks said. "That's the most important thing that everybody is on the same page. Everybody was talking. That was very important to establish that early so there is no miscommunication.''
If Hartwig returns soon, Essex shows he's capable of starting and no more injuries occur, the Steelers' line will be that much better when the real season begins on Sept. 10 against Tennessee.
As for now, though, the next three preseason games may give a better gauge on whether the line will be an improved unit in 2009.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.