PITTSBURGH - Many Steelers stood out in their 27-0 victory over the lowly St. Louis Rams on Saturday at Heinz Field.
Coach Mike Tomlin chose to single out one who may have gone unnoticed to the average viewer of the game - offensive lineman Trai Essex.
"I particularly like the effort from Trai Essex,'' Tomlin said after his team bounced back from its disappointing loss in San Francisco and improved to 11-4. "You are talking about a guy that's our emergency third center.''
Mirror photo by J.D.?Cavrich
Quarterback Charlie Batch celebrates with receiver Mike Wallace after a 46-yard pass play to the 1-yard line Sunday at Heinz Field.
Essex filled in at center when the Steelers' first two on the depth chart were lost for injuries. Starter Maurkice Pouncey missed his second straight game with a sprained ankle, and backup Doug Legursky sustained a shoulder strain on the Steelers' second offensive play of the game Saturday.
Essex, a seven-year veteran, played a near flawless game at center after shifting from left guard. Together with Charlie Batch, starting at quarterback in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers had no trouble in disposing of the 2-13 Rams.
The Steelers remained tied with the Baltimore Ravens for first place in the AFC North Division. Pittsburgh can still win the division and get a first-round bye in the playoffs if it wins in Cleveland next Sunday and the Ravens lose in Cincinnati.
"Doug Legursky went down early in the game,'' Tomlin said. "We didn't have any problems with our center to quarterback exchanges. We were able to run the football. We declared fronts. I tip my hat to [Essex] and his efforts.''
Essex, a third-round draft pick in 2005 from Northwestern, had never really found a starting spot with the Steelers but stuck with the team for six seasons because of his ability to play multiple positions on the line.
The Steelers' faith in him, though, ran out this past summer when he went to Roethlisberger's wedding in July during the lockout and was overweight. The Steelers then chose not to re-sign him before the season.
"I think [the Steelers] saw me at Ben's wedding and didn't want to sign me,'' Essex said. "But that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I knew then I had to take care of my health. It was a lucky day for Ben and a lucky day for me.''
Essex said he has dropped 50 pounds since Roethlisberger's wedding and is still losing weight. The Steelers signed him earlier in the regular season, and he has worked his way back to being a valuable member of the team again.
In fact, Essex has played all five positions on the line at various points this season and has even played tight end. Saturday, though, was the first he's played center, and it came with a backup quarterback
"I was nervous as hell when Doug got hurt,'' Essex said. "I just kept thinking that I got to get the snaps to Charlie, and after the first three, four or five assignments, I quit thinking about that. That's best when you're not thinking.''
With the Steelers having just four days off between the loss in San Francisco and Saturday, Essex didn't get to work on snaps in practice as much as he may normally do with the scout team.
"A lot of credit goes to the other guys on the line,'' Essex said. "We were all on the same page.''
The line also had Jonathan Scott starting at right tackle for the demoted Marcus Gilbert and helped open holes for Steelers runners to produce their third-best rushing game of the season with 169 yards. Rashard Mendenhall ran for just his second 100-yard game of the year with 116 yards on 18 carries.
Mendenhall's 52-yard run in the second quarter set up a 10-yard touchdown run by recently promoted John Clay on his first NFL carry to give the Steelers a 10-0 advantage. Mendenhall and Isaac Redman later added short touchdown runs in the fourth quarter to seal the victory for the Steelers.
"I take my hat off to the offensive line,'' Redman said. "They've been banged up all year [and were] banged up again today. They were getting up on their guys, getting up on the second level, and Mendenhall was finding holes.''
The line also gave Batch enough time to complete 15 passes on 22 attempts for 208 yards. He also was not sacked in improving his record to 7-2 as a Steelers starter.
Batch made a Roethlisberger-like escape in the backfield and found Mendenhall for a 35-yard gain in the first quarter to set up a Shaun Suisham 21-yard field goal. He also completed 18- and 20-yard passes on the first drive of the second half, which led to a 49-yard Suisham field goal.
Batch also threw a 46-yarder to Mike Wallace and an 18-yarder to Heath Miller to set up the short touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.
"We're very comfortable with Chuck at quarterback,'' Essex said. "He knows the offense as good as Ben and as good as anyone in the locker room. We all have faith in him.''
The Steelers defense, playing without outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring), also did its part by producing its second shutout of the season, and it was the fourth time in the last five games it held an opponent to less than 10 points.
Contributing to the Rams' scoreless effort were two missed Josh Brown field goals, a fake punt that backfired when Steelers returner Antonio Brown stopped punter Donnie Jones 1-yard shy of a first down, and a 22-yard catch by Brandon Lloyd early in the game that was ruled an incompletion after a Steelers challenge.
The only bright spot for St. Louis was a 103-yard rushing effort by bruising veteran Steven Jackson. Third-string quarterback Kellen Clemens threw for just 91 yards on nine completions.
"[The Steelers defensive players] bend, but they don't break,'' Jackson said. "That's something on the scouting report that we knew. They tend to get stiff once you approach their side of the field.''
The Steelers will now try and begin the new calendar year with a victory over the 4-11 Browns and then hope for some help from the Bengals. Tomlin said it was too early to begin speculating on the playing status of Roethlisberger, Legursky and others who were injured.
"Cleveland will play us tough,'' Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Who knows what all will happen? We're not concentrating on the other teams. We have one game to play - that's our focus.''