PITTSBURGH (AP) — Maurkice Pouncey turned to face the cameras, his elaborately tattooed chest already covered in a fine sheen of sweat.
These are what walkthroughs are like these days for the Pittsburgh Steelers center. Call it part of the maturation process for a player barely a month removed from his 25th birthday. Call it penance for a season lost to injury. Or maybe both.
Only when the game that’s come so easy to him was taken away did Pouncey truly come to appreciate his immense talent. That includes pushing himself during an exercise meant to play like a slow-motion dress rehearsal for the real thing.
Not for Pouncey, who is currently attacking each practice like a man trying to make up for lost time. A year removed from a gruesome knee injury that threatened his career, the three-time Pro Bowler is downright giddy heading into Sunday’s opener against Cleveland.
“I feel like a rookie all over again,” Pouncey said.
In a way, he is.
A new position coach, a new contract and a newly rebuilt right knee have Pouncey earnestly trying to regain the form that made him one of the best players at his position before teammate David DeCastro rolled up on him eight plays into the 2013 season opener against Tennessee.
One second Pouncey was pulling to his left to open a hole for Isaac Redman. The next he was staring up at the sky and screaming in agony, his knee shredded and his teammates in shock. While trainers tended to him, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knelt on the Heinz Field turn a few yards away and covered his eyes in a mixture of shock and disgust.
Surgery and eight grueling months of rehab followed, a process that forced Pouncey to watch from the sideline or on TV while the Steelers slumped to an 0-4 start on their way to a second straight 8-8 season.
Relegated to bystander, Pouncey admits he wasn’t much of a cheerleader. It’s kind of hard to wave a towel when you’re gritting your teeth.
“That was terrible,” Pouncey said. “I can’t imagine what it was like for the guys who were playing, because when you lose games like that — four in a row — everything’s different at work. It’s tough to be there, and nobody has a smile on their face.”
The smiles are back — for now — as the Steelers try to return to the playoffs after two miserable Januarys missing the postseason. And they’ll do it with the athletic, aggressive and still learning Pouncey back as the linchpin for the rest of the offense.
“His actions proved he missed football,” guard Ramon Foster said. “His rehab, his urgency … You can tell being out of football for a year, he kind of treasured the sport a little bit more.”
Any lingering concerns over his knee, which remains stabilized by a thick brace, disappeared at the beginning of training camp when Pouncey found himself mixed up with rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier. Shazier grabbed both sides of Pouncey’s jersey and threw the center to the ground.
Any other time in his football life, and Pouncey would have been furious at getting manhandled. Not this time. In that brief moment, Pouncey understood he could simply go out and play without needing second-by-second feedback from the joint at the base of his massive thighs.
“I was kind of like there it is,” Pouncey said. “I don’t even think about it anymore after that.”
He has looked much like the player who, “has that it factor” as cornerback Ike Taylor put it. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak has modified the blocking schemes a bit to take better advantage of Pouncey’s agility.
At 6-foot-4 and 304 pounds, he is strong enough to take on most defensive linemen and quick enough to seal a linebacker. It’s one of the reasons the Steelers gave him a five-year contract extension worth $44 million in June. They believe he’ll be around awhile.
So does Pouncey, who also understands part of the job description is becoming a leader away from the field. That part is a little tougher. He and brother Mike — who plays for the Miami Dolphins — are facing a civil suit stemming from a nightclub incident in Miami over the summer.
No criminal charges have been filed yet and Pouncey called the accusations “hurtful.” Maybe, but he said he’s trying to be more pragmatic about how he spends his free time. Not that there will be much over the next six months or so. Not with a career to revive and a franchise to lead back to the promised land.
“We definitely need a bounce-back year because we went two years without the playoffs,” he said. “Our bounce-back year should’ve been last year, so we definitely need that to happen this year.”
NOTES: WR Martavis Bryant (shoulder) and WR Lance Moore (groin) did not practice on Wednesday. … CB Brice McCain (groin) was limited while TE Matt Spaeth (hamstring), LB Sean Spence (knee) and LS Greg Warren (knee) were full participants.
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