At age 27, Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey has already been through a career’s worth of devastating injuries, yet he always finds a way to return to All-Pro form.
After his worst injury scare yet, Pouncey is back to leading the Steelers’ offensive line –– and he looks better than ever.
The Steelers rumbled through the rain to a 24-16 victory over the division rival Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, thanks in large part to the team’s 124 yards rushing. In a 38-16 Week 1 win over the Washington Redskins, the Steelers churned out 147 yards on the ground.
DeAngelo Williams has done a great job in the first two games making quick cuts and getting upfield, but Pouncey is the one creating the Texas-sized holes in the Bengals’ defense.
“I was running through a lot of holes all night,” Williams told the Steelers’ official website after rushing for 143 yards in Week 1, giving all the credit to his offensive line.
Pouncey is in his seventh season with the Steelers, although he missed the entire regular season last year and missed all but four minutes in 2013. In the four years that he’s played at least 14 games, he’s been dominant –– making the Pro Bowl and first- or second-team All-Pro every time.
With a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, a record-breaking wide receiver in Antonio Brown and two of the best running backs in the league in Williams and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers have no shortage of firepower on offense.
But Pouncey is –– literally –– the center of it all. He’s the one who makes the pre-snap reads and calls out line adjustments before snapping the ball to Roethlisberger and smashing into whichever defensive tackle chooses to line up against him.
“He is the rock of our line,” Steelers offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert told the team’s official website in August. “The way he commands the huddle and what he demands out of our line is unbelievable. He isn’t just a great leader in the huddle. He leads by example.”
Sure, it’s great to have Pro Bowl players at every skill position. But football is still a game that’s won in the trenches, and the Steelers have dominated the line of scrimmage in the first two games of 2016.
Since his arrival in 2010, the Steelers have experienced life without Pouncey in big games numerous times –– and it usually doesn’t end well for them.
As a rookie in 2010, Pouncey played in all 16 regular-season games and, in the process, earned a spot in the Pro Bowl and made the NFL All-Pro second team. He helped pave the way for running back Rashard Mendenhall’s 1,273 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, and the Steelers won 12 games and a division title.
Then, a New York Jets linebacker fell on Pouncey’s left ankle in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game, forcing him to miss Super Bowl XLV –– which the Steelers lost to the Green Bay Packers, 31-25.
In 2011, Pouncey played in 14 games and did so at an even higher level. He made it to his second straight Pro Bowl and was selected to the NFL All-Pro first team, and again, the Steelers won 12 games in the regular season.
But Pouncey suffered a left high-ankle sprain in Week 14 that caused him to miss two regular season games as well as the Wild Card Round game against the Denver Broncos, which the Steelers lost in overtime, 29-23.
In 2013, fellow Steelers offensive lineman David DeCastro accidentally took Pouncey’s legs out with a cut block in the first quarter of a Week 1 game against the Tennessee Titans, causing Pouncey to miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL and MCL. The Steelers finished 8-8 and missed out on the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
After returning from the gruesome knee injury to play a full 16 games for the first time since his rookie year in 2014, he entered the 2015 season in the prime of his career –– only to suffer through his most injury-plagued season so far.
Pouncey suffered a broken left fibula when Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix fell on the back of his leg. This time, the injury happened in the preseason, and the Steelers expected him to return about halfway through the season.
But his surgical wound didn’t heal properly, resulting in a staph infection. He also came down with an E. coli infection that wasn’t as serious but required attention.
“It was scary,” Pouncey told ESPN in June. “I don’t want that on my worst enemy.”
The staph infection hadn’t yet reached the bone when doctors caught it, and after six corrective surgeries and a skin graft, Pouncey’s leg finally healed. But any chance of playing in 2015 was long gone, so he instead focused on returning at full strength in 2016.
He’s done exactly that so far in the first two games of the season. Defensive linemen either stick to Pouncey or get run over as soon as big No. 53 snaps the ball and engages them, unable to do anything but watch as Williams gallops through the open field.
Pouncey might not get the headlines reserved for Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown, but if he goes down, the Steelers’ Super Bowl aspirations might go down with him.