Injury fill-ins keep Super Bowl teams patched up
Around the middle of this season, Erik Walden wasn't good enough to be on the roster of an NFL team.
On Sunday, both will be starters in the Super Bowl.
Injuries gave each a chance to show what they could do this season, and both have helped keep their teams humming along. They're hardly alone.
Walden is among six starters on the Green Bay Packers who got their job as in-season injury replacements. Foster is among three such guys on the Pittsburgh Steelers, although it will probably be four since Doug Legursky likely will replace Maurkice Pouncey at center.
All told, nearly one-fourth of all Super Bowl starters will be fill-ins, which proves something else about these teams. They weren't just the best in their conferences, they also were the best at the game within the game of pro football — weathering the injuries that are inevitable in such a violent sport.
"The NFL is the NFL. It's not supposed to be easy, and it hasn't been easy," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said.
Here's how difficult it was: Placed on injured reserve were starters at running back, tight end, right tackle, a safety and a pair of linebackers. A total of 16 players were on injured reserve. What had been a promising season turned shaky. Green Bay made the playoffs as a sixth seed, but now they are the oddsmakers' pick to win the Super Bowl.
"I think a lot of credit goes to guys like Ted Thompson for picking the right dudes," right guard Daryn Colledge said. "When teams get in an injury situation, a lot of them go hunting, they try to find guys on the market who are available. Our team doesn't have to do that much. We have a lot of guys in-house who can get it done."
Thompson deflected any credit.
"It says something of the character of the leaders on our team," Thompson said. "They took these guys in. They knew they needed help. They put their arms around them and said, 'OK, let's go. Help us out.' The resolve of this team has been very special."
Told that the players credited the front office, Thompson smiled and said, "Maybe that's the teamwork we're looking for."
Thompson wouldn't say which fill-in most exceeded his expectations because he didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.
"It's like my dad says, 'Some of those guys don't know they're not supposed to be good,'" Thompson said. "They don't. They're just playing. They're doing the best they can and our coaches are doing a good job of putting them in a spot to be successful."
Look at the linebacker vacancies. Nick Barnett started in the middle and Brad Jones was the outside guy opposite Clay Matthews. Then Barnett and Jones went down.
Desmond Bishop replaced Barnett and Jones' spot went to Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie from Central Michigan. In need of more depth, the Packers called Walden, a 25-year-old journeyman.
A sixth-round pick by Dallas in 2008, the Cowboys cut him before the season. He played a little for Kansas City, was cut again and wound up in Miami. He played 11 games for the Dolphins last season and two this season. They got rid of him and he was out of work for about a month before signing with Green Bay on Oct. 27.
"I knew I'd get a call sooner or later from some team," Walden said. "I was getting a lot of workouts. In due time, I figured I would land somewhere."
In December, Zombo went down. Walden got the first two starts of his career, followed by three more in the playoffs. However, he sprained an ankle in the NFC championship game. He practiced Wednesday but was held out Thursday because of lingering soreness. Zombo took his place on the first team, and is healthy enough to play Sunday if needed.
Maybe it's only fitting that an injury fill-in would be hurt, making a starter again out of another injury fill-in — a guy who went to training camp just hoping to make the practice squad and wound up a starter a few weeks into the season.
"It's pressure, excitement, all of those," Zombo said. "It doesn't just take guys who are genetic animals — that are huge and run fast. It takes heart to play this game. I think that's what we've got. We love to play for each other."
Pittsburgh was patching holes in its lineup from the start.
With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended from the first four games, Dennis Dixon filled in. Then he got hurt and Charlie Batch took over. The Steelers were 3-1 when Roethlisberger returned.
Since then, the offensive line has been the revolving door. Left tackle Max Starks was replaced by Jonathan Scott and right guard Trai Essex by Foster, a former standout at Tennessee who made the Steelers in 2009 as an undrafted free agent.
Legursky started four games for Essex before Foster took over. Legursky has never started an NFL game at center, but in the AFC championship he showed he could handle the job.
"They're survivors," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said, referring to his offensive line. "They embrace our motto that 'The standard is the standard.' Guys have stepped up and proved they are capable of being reasons why we win. It's a good group. It's a close-knit group, but more importantly than anything else, they subscribe to that standard."