PITTSBURGH (AP) -- They spend as many as eight hours a day together for at least five months, practicing three to four times a week. They lift weights. Watch film. Break down game plans. Not surprisingly, they occasionally get tired of seeing one another's faces.
For a Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line that often seemed like anything but a cohesive unit this season, they decided all that time wasn't enough.
After losing longtime All-Pro guard Alan Faneca to free agency, followed by starters Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons to early season injuries, the Steelers' linemen felt so many personnel changes merited a change in their work habits.
So, about midseason, the linemen began hanging out regularly after practice. Sometimes they'll go to a player's house and watch film, doing their own self-analysis rather than letting offensive line coach Larry Zierlein do it.
Sometimes it's nothing more than a night munching wings and sipping beers, just as NFL linemen did back in the 1950s and 1960s when the pay was a fraction of what it is now and the NFL was a buddy-filled extension of college football.
"There's always food involved," right tackle Willie Colon said. "Always a lot of food."
As the Steelers move into the playoffs with a divisional game against San Diego on Sunday, the linemen think the time was well spent.
"We got tired of hearing, `You're not on the same page,' we got tired of all the criticism, so as a unit we took it upon ourselves," Colon said. "If we've got to take an hour outside of this place to get on the same page, that's what we've chosen to do and it's been successful so far."
Their on-field results told them something different was needed. Traditionally one of the NFL's best rushing offenses, the Steelers slipped to 23rd this season - partly because Willie Parker, who gained at least 1,200 yards in each of the previous three seasons, fought through knee and shoulder injuries.
Ben Roethlisberger also was sacked 46 times, an unusually high number for a quarterback good enough to have won a Super Bowl.
"Sometimes there's not enough time in the day to get into details with stuff, so we wanted to make sure to cover all our bases," said Colon, the only Steelers lineman starting at the same position as last year. "We kind of started in the middle of the season. Someone just came up with the bright idea."
With four different starters, and tight end Sean McHugh effectively serving as the fullback, this is the most changed Steelers offensive line in years.
Chris Kemoeatu moved in for Faneca at left guard. Max Starks shifted to left tackle to replace Smith. Darnell Stapleton, a non-drafted lineman from Rutgers, replaced Simmons at right guard. Justin Hartwig took over at center after a one-year experiment with Sean Mahan at a position once manned by All-Pros Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.
With new players, and players at new positions, there is bound to be disorder when so much is happening along the line of scrimmage at the snap.
"Justin being the guy who makes most of the calls, we had to understand the reason why he's saying this," Colon said. "We understand if this happens, we might have to go to this. It all takes time. Sometimes you don't get that (in practice), because the coaches have to go over so much. We kind of backtracked and made sure everybody is on the same page."
The injuries meant the line's overhaul didn't stop when the season started.
"We definitely have had our highs and our lows running the ball, but this is the time that we have to step up and get it done," Hartwig said.
Roethlisberger also sought to build chemistry with the players who protect him, taking the linemen to Chicago to celebrate Hartwig's birthday the weekend after their Thursday night game against Cincinnati on Nov. 20.
"They have come a long way. I still remind people that you have to remember that Max Starks and Darnell Stapleton are fill-ins," Roethlisberger said. "They have gotten so much better. They have played against some phenomenal defenses. I wish people would understand what kind of defenses they played against and how good they are. They have done a great job. I am fine. I am up walking around. I will always have their back and I know they will always have mine."
Strong praise from a player who could have been angry after being sacked so often - 23 times in the first eight games - and sustaining a concussion while being sacked late in the first half against Cleveland on Dec. 28.
Roethlisberger is cleared to play against the Chargers, though it remains uncertain how much the concussion will affect him.
The Steelers are encouraged going into this game because Parker ran for 115 yards during their 11-10 victory over San Diego on Nov. 16. His only other 100-yard game during the second half of the season was a 116-yard effort in the meaningless game against Cleveland.
Meaningless except to the linemen, who felt it was a major step toward coming together for the playoffs. So does Parker, who said opponents still don't properly fear Pittsburgh's once-formidable run game.
With Parker out with a broken leg, the Steelers found out last season what not having a running game in the playoffs meant when they were limited to 46 yards in a 31-29 loss to Jacksonville.
"If I was on the defensive side of the ball, I wouldn't respect the running game because we haven't been that special this year," Parker said. "So we've just got to make our own respect."
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