Analyzing the Steelers O-Line: Buccaneers, Week 3

Three weeks into the season, there is not much to complain about with the Steelers’ offensive line. They have survived injuries at left tackle and right guard. They’ve endured a pair of games in brutal heat where they have subbed like the Penguins making line changes. And through it all, they have adequately protected the quarterback while showing also creating holes for Rashard Mendenhall.

The o-line will be tested over the next couple of weeks — the Ravens can confuse with their blitz packages and the Dolphins’ speed off the corner will be a difficult matchup for Max Starks and Flozell Adams. But three weeks into the season, this offensive line has been OK, which is about all anyone could have asked.

One of the keys to the improvement is the newfound depth along the line. We mentioned in the preseason that the biggest strength of this offensive line is its interchangeability. There may not be many any stars, but the difference between the second-worst and the second-best offensive lineman is very small.

There is some value in that, as we’ve seen in the past two weeks. If you want to argue that Doug Legursky is a better guard than Trai Essex, I could see the case. They have different strengths (better mobility for Legursky, better strength for Essex) and some similar weaknesses (weaker in pass blocking than run blocking). I couldn’t really tell you which one is better, but I can say that the Steelers don’t really miss a beat if Legursky is filling in for Essex. And if you argued that Ramon Foster is better than both of them, I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but I can see where you would have an argument.

The same could be said at tackle. I was one of Jonathan Scott’s biggest critics in the preseason, and in the past two weeks he hasn’t shown that he’s a future starter or anything. But he has shown that the drop-off from Adams to Scott isn’t that dramatic (something that can’t be said when Tony Hills comes into the game).

Three weeks into the season, Maurkice Pouncey is the only offensive lineman to play every snap. He’s the young guy on the line and also the most talented, but even so, he’s not irreplaceable. If something happened to Pouncey, Legursky has shown that he should be able to fill in adequately for a couple of weeks.

But if you are looking for the biggest explanation for why Pittsburgh is averaging 4.7 yards per carry even though teams know they are going to run the ball, I’ll point to the tight ends. Pittsburgh asks a lot of its tight ends. They often have three of them in the game (with David Johnson splitting time at fullback, tight end and H-back), and the scheme often requires Matt Spaeth or Heath Miller to block a defensive end at the point of attack.

In past years, Spaeth hasn’t been up to that job. This year he’s been excellent at it. When charting the tight ends’ blocks, I don’t expect them to win every battle. After all, they are often up against bigger, stronger defensive linemen. But against the Buccaneers, it was Spaeth’s and Miller’s blocks that gave Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall room to run in the fourth quarter when the Bucs stacked the line with eight and nine men.

There was a lot to be happy about in the win over Tampa Bay, but as someone who loves to watch an offensive line beat up a defense, this was what made me smile:

  1. 1-10-PIT 4 (11:35) 34-R.Mendenhall right guard to PIT 9 for 5 yards (20-R.Barber).
  2. 2-5-PIT 9 (10:52) 34-R.Mendenhall left end to PIT 19 for 10 yards (35-C.Grimm).
  3. 1-10-PIT 19 (10:03) 33-I.Redman left tackle to PIT 28 for 9 yards (51-B.Ruud).
  4. 2-1-PIT 28 (9:17) 33-I.Redman up the middle to PIT 44 for 16 yards (20-R.Barber). WATCH HIGHLIGHT
  5. 1-10-PIT 44 (8:28) 34-R.Mendenhall up the middle to TB 38 for 18 yards (20-R.Barber). WATCH HIGHLIGHT
  6. Timeout #1 by PIT at 07:38.
  7. 1-10-TB 38 (7:38) 33-I.Redman right guard to TB 36 for 2 yards (54-G.Hayes).
  8. 2-8-TB 36 (6:57) 34-R.Mendenhall left end to TB 32 for 4 yards (58-Q.Black).

That’s seven runs against a defense that knew Pittsburgh was going to run the ball. The Steelers drove from the shadow of their own end zone into Bucs’ territory and they did it with a backup left tackle (Scott) and left guard (Ramon Foster). Mendenhall and Redman deserve credit for taking advantage of the holes the line created, but to get yardage play after play only happens when you have an offensive line where five men are executing their assignments.

Are their still things to be worried about? Absolutely. Pittsburgh is running the ball well, but the tackles are still vulnerable to speed rushes and the interior three need to show what they can do when they have to sort out their assignments when a team shows some confusing zone blitzes. But three weeks in, this line is looking a lot better than 2009. And if we’re saying that, new line coach Sean Kugler deserves a lot of credit.

OK, enough of a preamble. Let’s dive into the Bucs’ game. Here’s the breakdown of how I saw the line performing. The usual disclaimer: I watch each player on each play and then I ask was it a successful block or not. We’re not focusing on technique here, but results. An ugly block that works gets a yes.

Player Pressures Sacks Good Plays Total Plays PCT
Kemoeatu 36 38 94.74%
Scott 18 19 94.74%
Miller 28 30 93.33%
Adams 32 35 91.43%
Spaeth 20 22 90.91%
Foster 17 19 89.47%
Pouncey 2 41 46 89.13%
Legursky 1 29 33 87.88%
Starks 1 32 38 84.21%
Johnson 9 12 75.00%
Redman 2 3 66.67%

Now we’ll jump into how the players did individually.

Max Starks: Just a week after he injured his ankle, Starks decided to ignore the pain and step back into the lineup. It was a gutty performance, but you could also tell that Starks was limited by his bad ankle. Even when he’s fully healthy, Starks isn’t particularly mobile, but on Sunday he just couldn’t stop and start as quickly as you would like. It didn’t really hurt the Steelers, and Starks was relatively effective even with a bad wheel, but there was one stretch in the first half when he had four bad plays in a row.

To Starks’ credit, he managed to pull it back together and continued to play through most of the second half. But he’ll need to be healthier next week. Pittsburgh played around Starks’ injury last weekend, something that seemed apparent in the play calling. When Starks was in the game, they ran to the right. When they pulled him from the game, then they felt comfortable running to the left. Check out this breakdown.

With Starks Att Yds Avg Negative Plays 4+ Yards
Runs Right 12 85 7.08 0 6
Runs Center 3 10 3.33 0 1
Runs Left 6 20 3.33 2 2
Without Starks
Runs Right 2 7 3.5 0 1
Runs Center 2 34 17 0 2
Runs Left 3 23 7.67 0 3

Pittsburgh ran the ball more often and more successfully to the left once Starks left. That makes sense since his ankle didn’t really given him the ability to drive off the ball, but he was capable of sealing off the backside on runs to the right.

Here’s Starks’ play-by-play breakdown:

1 Good job on DE on backside of play Yes
2 OK block Yes
3 Quick pass Yes
4 Turns his man on run his way Yes
5 Drives his man past pocket Yes
6 No one to block as Bucs not fooled by reverse Yes
7 Excellent job of pass pro Yes
8 Good job on DE on run other way Yes
9 Over runs LB blocks no one No
10 Gets some movement down line, but no push Yes
11 Takes man outside Yes
12 Good job taking man outside, then stuffing cut back Yes
13 Turns his man well on Mendenhall TD Yes
14 Looking kinda gimpy can’t stop and turn to pick up LB No
15 Handles man with help Yes
16 Still looking gimpy lumbers around not blocking anyone No
17 Gets no push on DE No
18 Screen pass. Again blocks no one No
19 Clearly ankle is bothering him. Works hard to get quick enough drop. Beaten for pressure by outside speed rush No
20 Handles DE on run other way Yes
21 Nice work for a bad ankle. Drives man outside Yes
22 Again ugly technique, but it works Yes
23 Handles stunt well Yes
24 Blocks, hands guy off then picks up next one Yes
25 Clocks ball Yes
26 Gives ground, but it’s OK Yes
27 Great block on LB and does it on one leg Yes
28 Drives his man down line Yes
29 Cuts his man Yes
30 WOW. Flattens his man Yes
31 Good job on backside Yes
32 Picks up LB Yes
33 Drives his man outside Yes
34 QB sneak. Fires ahead Yes
35 Solid job on backside Yes
36 Solid job on backside Yes
37 Blocks a lot of guys semi-effectively Yes
38 OK job Yes

Chris Kemoeatu: This was one of Kemoeatu’s best weeks in quite a while. Not because of any great plays, but because of great consistency.

1 Seems to get hurt, ,but makes his block first Yes
2 OK block Yes
3 Lets guy inside but quick pass Yes
4 Goes to second level, but his man (LB) submarines to clog the hole No
5 Three to block one inside Yes
6 Goes chasing after LB Yes
7 Helps Pouncey Yes
8 One-armed effective block keeps DT stuck there Yes
9 Has to chase but reaches DT and drives him past hole Yes
10 Completely whiffs on LB No
11 Good job of maintaining position Yes
12 Knocks man to ground Yes
13 Fires off, but finds no one to block Yes
14 Good reach block on #90 Yes
15 Helps Starks Yes
16 GREAT. Blocks DT then takes another target to ground Yes
17 Has to go long way but finds LB Yes
18 Absorbs block, which works on screen pass Yes
19 Good job with bull rush Yes
20 Intimidates LB to stop trying Yes
21 Stays alert. Keeps head up but not much to do Yes
22 Poor play call, screen pass fools no one. Tries to block, but play already blown up Yes
23 Good job on DE Yes
24 Good job again on handoff Yes
25 Clocks ball Yes
26 Not much to do so helps Starks Yes
27 Drives DT inside Yes
28 Solid block on #90 Yes
29 Quick pass Yes
30 Stones his man Yes
31 Good job on backside Yes
32 Good pull block on #93 Yes
33 Good on backside Yes
34 QB sneak. Fires ahead Yes
35 OK job by staying low Yes
36 Fires out to hit LB Yes
37 Shoves man inside Yes
38 Sticks with his man Yes

Maurkice Pouncey: We’ll see in the upcoming weeks how he handles big nose tackles, but Pouncey has made it clear that he’s quite comfortable firing out to pick up linebackers and safeties. He even pulled to lead a sweep this week, something that Dermontti Dawson did better than any center maybe in league history.

1 Excellent block on S. Very good movement Yes
2 OK block Yes
3 Quick pass Yes
4 His man gets ahead of him and fills the hole No
5 Three to block one inside Yes
6 Quick block then leaves screen as he goes downfield to block Yes
7 Gets help from Kemo Yes
8 Picks up LB at second level and destroys him Yes
9 Tough block to reach and root out DT Yes
10 Driven back a little but holds ground Yes
11 Gives up ground, but stays in position Yes
12 Works with Legursky Yes
13 Good job on DT Yes
14 Tries to get to LB, but LB beats him to get to hole No
15 Sticks with man twisting outside Yes
16 EXCELLENT. Puts #90 on ground Yes
17 Good block on DT Yes
18 LB slips inside him for tackle No
19 Driven back into Batch for QB Pressure No
20 Drives DT outside Yes
21 Picks up rusher well Yes
22 Nice block on LB, has to hustle Yes
23 Helps out, no one to block Yes
24 Driven back, but sticks onto his man Yes
25 Clocks ball Yes
26 Works with Foster Yes
27 Great job on #93 Yes
28 Solid Yes
29 Finds LB Yes
30 Works with Legursky Yes
31 OK job Yes
32 Handles #90 Yes
33 Excellent block on S Yes
34 QB sneak. Fires ahead Yes
35 Gives two feet of ground, but then steadies Yes
36 Nice work Yes
37 Finds LB Yes
38 Loses his man for QB pressure No
39 DOMINATES. Picks up S, makes him run away Yes
40 Again picks up LB Yes
41 Solid Yes
42 Good enough block Yes
43 Nice turn block Yes
44 Solid block Yes
45 Nice pull block Yes
46 OK in help Yes

Doug Legursky: Legursky got on the field for a couple of snaps in 2009, but he never really got to show what he could do. After watching him the last week and half, you can’t help but wonder if Pittsburgh wouldn’t have been better off last year with Legursky starting instead of Justin Hartwig (who now can’t find a job). During the preseason Legursky showed some difficulty handling bull rush moves from strong defensive tackles. But during the regular season, that hasn’t been a problem and he’s done a very good job of turning defensive linemen and picking up linebackers in the run game.

1 Nice reach block turns DT Yes
2 Pulls solid block on backside Yes
3 Quick pass Yes
4 His man flows down line, but Legursky sticks with him and drives him past hole Yes
5 Three to block one inside Yes
6 Beaten to inside No
7 Beaten to outside for QB pressure, forces Batch to step up No
8 Easily handles DT Yes
9 OK job on DE Yes
10 Very good block on LB Yes
11 Sticks with man as Batch runs by Yes
12 Gets help from Pouncey Yes
13 So-so cut block on Rudd, but it works Yes
14 Nice kick out block on DE Yes
15 Decent block Yes
16 Quick pass Yes
17 Works with Foster Yes
18 Helps Pouncey on DT. Should have gotten LB? Yes
19 Very good block on LB Yes
20 GREAT. Blocks DT and then S Yes
21 QB sneak. Fires ahead Yes
22 NICE. Makes hole by stuffing his man Yes
23 GREAT AGAIN. Drives his man inside Yes
24 Solid Yes
25 Was helping Pouncey when man got free for pressure No
26 Excellent block on DT Yes
27 Good enough job on DT Yes
28 Solid work Yes
29 Creates hole with block on DT Yes
30 Again moves his man Yes
31 OUTSTANDING. Drives his man away Yes
32 Falls down No
33 Not much to do Yes

Flozell Adams: There is no one harder to evaluate than Adams. Even on his good plays, he generally looks slow footed and lumbering. But results are what matters, and the results again this week were pretty good.

1 Slow off snap, lets S by to inside, blocks no one No
2 Rollout. Blocks no one, but no one to block Yes
3 Quick pass Yes
4 Can’t get ahead of his man slanting down line to help stuff run No
5 Drives his man past pocket Yes
6 Wildcat play, moves around, but doesn’t really block anyone No
7 Drives his man to outside Yes
8 Stays alert, picks up LB cutting to his inside Yes
9 GREAT. Seals corner then shoves LB to ground with one arm Yes
10 Drives his man outside Yes
11 Not much to do Yes
12 Not much to do as Spaeth picks up DE Yes
13 EXCELLENT. Looks like a beast in knocking DE inside Yes
14 OK job Yes
15 Gets help from Foster Yes
16 Solid on backside Yes
17 OK job Yes
18 Quick pass Yes
19 Good job, gets chip help from Miller Yes
20 Caves his man on run his way Yes
21 Good block on LB Yes
22 Throws LB inside Yes
23 QB sneak. Fires ahead Yes
24 Good work Yes
25 Tries to drive his man, falls down Yes
26 Doesn’t do much but is on backside Yes
27 Easy play Yes
28 Good job creating movement Yes
29 Very good block on LB Yes
30 Engulfs man Yes
31 Creates hole by sealing off his man Yes
32 Good enough Yes
33 Good enough Yes
34 First target gets away so he finds another one (off screen) Yes
35 Man eventually cuts inside but too late to do anything Yes

Ramon Foster: Foster’s the stronger, if slower, counterpart to Legursky. He didn’t have as many standout plays as Legursky this week, but he didn’t look out of place by any stretch of the imagination, either.

1 Blocks to whistle Yes
2 Helps Adams Yes
3 Pulls to lead Mendennhall. But doesn’t hit his target No
4 Solid job on DT Yes
5 Tries to cut LB at end of play Yes
6 No one to block Yes
7 Misses block on LB No
8 Solid job on DT Yes
9 OK job on DL Yes
10 Bull rush no problem Yes
11 OK block Yes
12 Clocks ball Yes
13 Teams with Pouncey Yes
14 Kicks man out Yes
15 So-so block on DT Yes
16 Decent block inside Yes
17 Good job finding S and getting block on him Yes
18 Good enough pull block on CB Yes
19 Helps Pouncey Yes
20 Turns man inside Yes
21 Not great block but keeps grip on man Yes

Jonathan Scott: He’ll never be an All-Pro, but Scott is showing signs that he’s a better player with the Steelers than he was in the battle for survival that was the 2009 Buffalo Bills’ season. His biggest problem — getting caught lunging in pass protection — hasn’t been an issue this year and he generally is doing a solid job in run blocking. I wouldn’t want him to be a starter, but he’s turning out to be a pretty solid swing tackle.

1 Driven into backfield by DE No
2 Whiffs on first try, gets hands on LB on second attempt Yes
3 Drives man outside Yes
4 No one to block Yes
5 NICE. Good block creates hole Yes
6 Good job of picking up bull rush cutback Yes
7 Lets guy by, by design? Yes
8 Drives man outside Yes
9 Pushes man inside Yes
10 Clocks ball Yes
11 Drives man outside Yes
12 Kicks man out Yes
13 Good job of caving his man Yes
14 Very nice block on DE Yes
15 Kicks out DE then knocks him to ground with nice cheap shot at end of play Yes
16 Good job Yes
17 Tracks down LB Yes
18 Good job leading Mendenhall Yes
19 Drives man outside Yes

Heath Miller: When the Pro Bowl voting heats up, everyone should remember that while Antonio Gates and other tight ends with gaudier stats are really big wide receivers, Miller is asked to root out defensive ends more than he is asked to split a Cover-2. And he does a good job of both, as we saw again this week.

1 OK block on LB Yes
2 Good block on S Yes
3 Ugly block but it works Yes
4 Good block on Quincy Black Yes
5 Good block on LB helps spring Mendenhall Yes
6 GREAT. Opens hole with nice block on DB Yes
7 Tries to help on DE, but spin move makes him lose Crowder No
8 Handles CB Yes
9 Takes on DE one-on-one Yes
10 Takes on LB, OK Yes
11 Good block on Crowder Yes
12 Good job on DE Yes
13 Finally finds someone to block 15 yards downfield Yes
14 Nice job on LB Yes
15 Can’t handle LB who makes tackle No
16 Chips on way out to route Yes
17 Nice job on LB Yes
18 OK block on DE Yes
19 GREAT. Creates hole with good block Yes
20 QB sneak. Fires ahead Yes
21 Very good job on LB Yes
22 Destroys his man Yes
23 Leads Mendenhall through hole OK block Yes
24 Kicks man out to create hole Yes
25 DT’s DE with Spaeth Yes
26 Good block on backside Yes
27 Good job Yes
28 KEY BLOCK. Moves his man creates hole Yes
29 Good block on DE Yes
30 Good enough on LB Yes

Matt Spaeth: There has been a lot of complaining about the Steelers’ spending a third-round pick on Spaeth a couple years ago. And there has been plenty of wondering (partly from me) why Pittsburgh would use Spaeth as their second tight end when they never throw to the second tight end. It’s a fair question, as Spaeth is once again essentially a third tackle on a team that runs the ball a lot from two and three tight end sets. But if Spaeth keeps playing like this, we all have nothing to complain about. He’s essentially a starter in Pittsburgh’s system, and he’s turned a corner with his run blocking. He can now beat up linebackers and doesn’t look lost against defensive ends.

1 OK block on LB Yes
2 OK block on backside Yes
3 Excellent block but his man’s only job is to cover him Yes
4 GREAT BLOCK. Drives DE down line on run his way Yes
5 Really blocks no one as play is blown up No
6 Excellent block on DE. Controls him Yes
7 Helps keep inside LB rom flowing to ball Yes
8 Very good block on Grimm Yes
9 OK block on DE on backside Yes
10 Decent block on De Yes
11 Good job on Black Yes
12 Works his man inside Yes
13 Can’t get to S in time to stop tackle No
14 OK block on LB Yes
15 QB sneak. Fires ahead Yes
16 Handles DB Yes
17 Drives man down line Yes
18 Doubles DE with Miller Yes
19 Knocks Ronde Barber back 8 yards Yes
20 Good job Yes
21 KEY BLOCK. Moves his man creates hole Yes
22 GREAT. Key block as DE gets tied inside Yes

David Johnson: I’d like to see Redman get more snaps at fullback than Johnson because Redman seems just as solid as a blocking fullback while throwing in better pass catching and running ability, but Johnson has shown some steady improvement as a blocking fullback. I logged Johnson blocking as a fullback on nine plays and as a tight end/H-back on three. He was a perfect three-for-three on blocking plays as a tight end and not as good as a fullback, but Mendenhall did seem to follow him into the hole this time, instead of running the other way as he has in past games.

1 OK work Yes
2 Stuffed in hole by LB going low No
3 Better this time. Leads through hole picks up LB Yes
4 Goes low on DE, but he helps make tackle No
5 Good kick out on CB Yes
6 Doesn’t make block on LB in the hole No
7 Creates enough hole to spring Mendenhall Yes
8 Excellent, picks up S blitzing Yes
9 NICE. Picks up free LB to spring Mendenhall Yes
10 GREAT. His block on DE gives Medenhall room to get outside Yes
11 Good block Yes
12 Excellent block on LB springs Mendenhall for 18 Yes

Isaac Redman: He only got three chances to block (but a lot more chances to run), but Redman just continues to impress.

1 NICE. Excellent blitz pick up, puts his man on ground yes
2 Excellent block on LB yes
3 Doesn’t block anyone No
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  • IsraelP

    Good job, JJ.

  • ToddinSyracuse

    Tasty as always.

  • VeritasSteel

    Great job, can we add in Moores blocking production as a 3rd down back as well?

    • JJ Cooper

      Good point. I should have included it. I don’t have the exact count, but I didn’t see a block he missed.

  • Miltonohlsen

    I really appreciate your work. One of these days I may be able to see what you see–but til then, THAKS!

  • Bigswa

    I like the directional run stuff. Nice Add

    • ryan

      Agreed. Somehow JJ found a way to make this awesomer.

  • Randy Steele

    Very impressive effort, Mr. Cooper. As always, we appreciate your hard work.

  • RoB D

    One of the great reads in all of Steelerdom…

    I look forward to it every week..bravo JJ..