PITTSBURGH -- A little less than two seasons into his NFL career, David DeCastro has already had to overcome two major knee injuries.
The first one happened during a preseason game in 2012 when DeCastro’s right knee got bent at a grotesque angle while pass blocking. The play left him with a torn medial collateral ligament and dislocated knee cap and cost DeCastro all but four games of his rookie season.
The second one happened in the Steelers’ Sept. 9 season opener, and it wasn’t even an injury to his own knee that left DeCastro with nearly as much psychological baggage as if the 6-foot-5, 316-pounder had gotten hurt again.
It came when he whiffed on a cut block and ended Maurkice Pouncey's season less than 10 plays into it. DeCastro’s inadvertent hit on Pouncey’s right knee left the Pro Bowl center with a torn ACL. The injury cast a pall over Heinz Field, and DeCastro struggled to overcome it in a 17-9 loss to the Titans.
“I was out of it to be honest,” DeCastro said. “As much as I wanted to sit there and feel bad and feel sorry for myself I couldn’t. I had to move on and help this team win.”
DeCastro has succeeded in moving on, and he could be headed to his first Pro Bowl for his play at right guard.
The Steelers’ 2012 first-round draft pick has been key in holding a line ravaged by injuries together. He has also emerged as a cornerstone of a unit that doesn’t have a projected starter next season who is older than 27.
“This year he’s playing his tail off,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “He knows it and he’s getting better and enjoying his time playing football.”
Sometimes it has been hard to tell how much DeCastro enjoyed much of anything.
Coach Mike Tomlin jokingly called him “Mr. Personality” in the months after the Steelers drafted DeCastro because he said so little. His words became less frequent as his focus grew even more singular after DeCastro got hurt in the preseason game at Buffalo.
“When he’s dealing with something like that he’s a straightforward, no B.S. type of dude,” Gilbert said. “He’s opening up a lot more. We’re glad to see that other side of him.”
DeCastro is clearly more comfortable with himself, whether it is on the field or fielding questions from reporters in the Steelers’ locker room.
He said the game started to slow down for him during the preseason, and he has generally been on the rise since then. The infamous cut block set him back but DeCastro said encouraging phone calls from his teammates, including the player who got leveled by friendly fire, helped him get over it quickly.
“Pouncey’s been nothing but nice,” DeCastro said. “I mean he’ll joke about it so he’s been great about it.”
Pouncey’s expected return for the start of next season is one of the reasons why DeCastro is so excited for the prospects of the offensive line moving forward -- assuming it can avoid mass injuries in 2014.
"We’ve just gotten better and better as the season has gone on. You can see that on tape,” DeCasto said. “I think we’re jelling for the most part.”