Pouncey splitting first-team center reps

Maurkice Pouncey makes the calls. (Getty Images)

Maurkice Pouncey is now splitting reps with Justin Hartwig at center. Read why, as well as what the first-round pick needs to do to claim the starting job.

LATROBE – On Sunday morning, the tape did all the talking for first-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey.

On Monday, the insertion of Pouncey into a 50-50 rotation with Justin Hartwig as the first-team center spoke even louder.

Of course, the coaches had their say, too.

"He played a solid game," said offensive line coach Sean Kugler. "Performed well, graded high, did a good job of finishing blocks. He handled the communication part at center in live action well."

"Very solid, extremely poised, powerful and physical. He did a great job," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

"Very impressive," said Coach Mike Tomlin, who was asked if Pouncey surprised him.

"He did," Tomlin said.

That makes two surprises for Tomlin, who on draft day said Pouncey would play right guard during his rookie season because "it's probably easier mentally to play guard because it's more receiving information as opposed to giving it."

But Monday's move – as well as Saturday night's early insertion of Pouncey with the first-team line – tells a different story, one that has the Steelers putting Pouncey on the fast track to starting the season at center.

"He's proven me quite wrong in that area, which is good," Tomlin said. "It's better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed. We were probably erring on the side of conservatism when we made that initial statement."

But now ...

"He's on the fast track due to his work ethic and the time that he's put in," said Kugler. Could he start on opening day?

"There's a possibility," Kugler said.

Pouncey enjoyed a standout first series Saturday night. It included his favorite play, the 31-yard run by Isaac Redman.

On that play, Pouncey buried the outside linebacker to open the hole, and he then trailed the play and gave Redman a downfield block, as well as a push for an extra five yards. Pouncey also saved Redman from a "pile jumper" by shoving a Lions' DB while falling to the ground.

"They showed it on film," Pouncey said of the Sunday O-line meeting. "But it's just one play." Pouncey, who just turned 21, is far from starry-eyed about his promotion. When asked whether Monday's practice means he has a chance to become the starting center, Pouncey said: "I don't know. We've got practice tomorrow."

There's also the question about the complexities that come with playing center in the NFL. When asked about the difference from playing at the University of Florida, Pouncey laughed.

"A lot different," he said, but his smile faded. "Seriously, it's a lot more difficult here."

Pouncey explained that his job of scanning the defense includes reads such as "safety drops down, the backers go up and over, nickel or dime in the game. You've got to know all that," he said.

The primary job of the center is to identify the Mike, or strong-side inside linebacker, and from there the rest of the line adjusts its responsibilities.

At one point in Monday's practice, Ben Roethlisberger rushed to the line from shotgun formation to correct Pouncey's identification of the Mike. Roethlisberger was asked if it's feasible for a rookie to start at center as early as opening day.

"It depends on how good your guards are," Roethlisberger said. "They'd have to help a lot. It's a complex thing you ask a center to do. He has to make a lot of calls and a lot of identifications. It wouldn't be easy unless you have some help around you. Even Justin now, he's been here and he still needs help. I know Jeff Hartings would get help."

How well is Pouncey grasping the material?

"I'm not in the meetings," Roethlisberger said. "But when I'm under center with him he seems to make the right calls, so I think he knows what he's doing."

"I need to get a lot better at it, I'm not going to lie to you," Pouncey said. "But I'm going to get it."

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