PITTSBURGH -- Most of the practices that Maurkice Pouncey watched after an errant block wrecked his knee -- and his 2013 season -- were with a crutch under each arm pit.
Juxtapose that sight with Pouncey running without the slightest trace of a limp in his first practice since last September and the Pittsburgh Steelers had to be thrilled with what they saw Tuesday during the team's first OTA practice.
Even if Troy Polamalu wasn't there.
That Pouncey appears to have made a full recovery after tearing his right ACL last September is big on several levels.
First and foremost, the Steelers have a decision when it comes to Pouncey.
The only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons is entering the final year of his contract. If the Steelers had any lingering doubts about signing Pouncey to a long-term deal -- he is slated to make $5.264 million in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- they should be gone after Pouncey looked as good as new during the team's first offseason practice.
Pouncey, in fact, could be the first player that the Steelers sign to a long-term extension.
That is how important he is to the Steelers, which bring us to another reason why his return to health is so critical for a team that has gone 8-8 in each of the last two seasons.
The offense really came together in the second half of last season and the Steelers averaged more than 28 points in their final nine games.
Ben Roethlisberger is back to lead an offense that is brimming with speed and talent at the skill positions. He will also benefit from playing behind a line that allowed just seven sacks in the Steelers' final seven games and essentially adds a Pro Bowl center in Pouncey -- he played just eight snaps last season -- as well as arguably the best offensive line coach in the NFL in Mike Munchak.
If the line can stay relatively healthy, something that has rarely happened during coack Mike Tomlin's tenure, there is no telling how good the offense can be.
And that is according to no less an authority than Roethlisberger.
“If the line can play to the potential that we think and know they can then I think we can be as good [offensively] as anybody,” Roethlisberger said.
It all starts with Pouncey up front.
And that is why his teammates were all smiles when asked about his return to the playing field if only for a late-May practice.
“It's an honor to have our captain back to control the ball on every snap,” Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “I am just thankful he is back on the field healthy.”