Football / Sports

Maurkice Pouncey's return celebrated by Steelers

The way Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey views it, the injury milestones are behind him. There were notable accomplishments along the way as he recovered from the ACL surgery that ended his 2013 season, from his first steps walking and running to his first practice in the spring.

So the fact that his first regular-season game will take place 364 days after his previous one holds little significance for him. The opener Sunday against the Cleveland Browns is merely another game that just so happens to take place in the same stadium where his 2013 season came crashing down under the weight of teammate and right guard David DeCastro.

"That already played out in OTAs," said the 6-foot-4, 304-pound Pouncey, entering his fifth season. "It's been a blessing for me to be back since (the spring). That part is all over. Now it's all about going out and playing."

Pouncey was injured eight plays into the opener against the Tennessee Titans last season when DeCastro caved in Pouncey's right knee while attempting to execute a cut block.

It was the first time Pouncey had missed a football season. He was a three-year starter at the University of Florida before entering the NFL draft with one season of eligibility left in 2010. He started 18 consecutive games his rookie season before an injury in the AFC championship against the New York Jets forced him to miss Super Bowl XLV. He started 29 of 32 games in the 2011 and 2012 regular seasons.

"You think a guy like him is invincible," left guard Ramon Foster said. "For him to go down was a big shock more than anything. We had to rally and regroup with the new guys. It was something we had to get used to because he was always there."

Pouncey did not travel with the team to road games. He watched them on TV. He watched home games from the sidelines, but didn't know what to do with himself.

"It was boring," Pouncey said. "I couldn't do anything but hope for the best for my teammates."

Foster said having football taken away had a profound effect on his linemate.

"His actions proved that he missed football," Foster said. "Being out there, even in walkthroughs, he's breaking a crazy sweat just on the little, small things he didn't get a chance to do last year.

"It's more his attitude than the look of him. You can tell being out of football for a year that he treasures football even more."

After Pouncey was injured last year, the Steelers went through three other centers in the final 15 games. Kelvin Beachum finished the Tennessee game, Fernando Velasco played the next 11 before a season-ending Achilles injury and Cody Wallace started the final four.

Eight months after major knee surgery, Pouncey lined up with the first-team offense for the first spring practice in May.

"It's good to have our brother back," said Beachum, now the starting left tackle. "That's the biggest thing. He just brings a different attitude to the game. Everyone on this line has a different personality, and we feed off each other. It's great to have that centerpiece back in the middle. His personality was really missed."

Pouncey became the first center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in three consecutive seasons to start his career. The Steelers have little doubt he will return to his previous form.

In June, they signed him to a six-year, $48 million contract that eliminated the possibility Pouncey could test free agency after the season.

Sunday, Pouncey won't take much time to reflect on the past year. His approach to the game will be as simple as it gets.

"Go out there, make all the right calls, play my hardest and do what I've always been doing, leading my guys the right way," he said.

(c)2014 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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