Analyzing the Steelers O-Line: Browns, Week 6

Five weeks into the 2010 season, the Steelers offensive line has been better than expected. Flozell Adams looked like a decrepit old man during the preseason, but once the regular season started, he quickly turned into a solid right tackle.

Maurkice Pouncey has made every Steelers fan forget about Justin Hartwig (and Sean Mahan) and start remembering that the Steelers used to have the best lineage of centers in the league.

And all of a sudden, 3rd-and-1 isn’t really a problem. It just means a handoff to Issac Redman and a first down. That’s partly because of Redman’s ability, but it also is a credit to this line.

Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of things that could be better, but five games into the season, there’s more to be happy about than unhappy about with this o-line.

I’m changing the format for this week’s o-line breakdown. Feel free to comment if you liked the old format. I’m not changing how I compile the results — I still grade each play as a good or bad play for each blocker on the play — I’m just leaving out the long list of play by play descriptions because at some point seeing “good play” or “solid block” seems to get repetitive. I will break down each player’s bad plays in the text to still explain where the problems came in.

Before we wade in to the detail for each player, here’s what the line looked like on pass plays.

Player Good Blocks Total Pct
Flozell Adams 25 25 1.000
Ramon Foster 4 4 1.000
David Johnson 2 2 1.000
Heath Miller 9 9 1.000
Issac Redman 4 4 1.000
Maurkice Pouncey 27 28 .964
Chris Kemoeatu 25 27 .926
Rashard Mendenhall 5 6 .833
Matt Spaeth 5 6 .833
Max Starks 24 29 .828
Jonathan Scott 3 4 .750
Doug Legursky 19 26 .731
Mewelde Moore 1 3 .333

And here’s what they looked like on run plays.

Player Good Blocks Total Plays Pct
Legursky 30 33 .909
Spaeth 25 28 .893
Miller 30 34 .882
Pouncey 30 34 .882
Kemoeatu 25 32 .781
Starks 26 34 .765
Foster 3 4 .750
Adams 23 31 .742
Johnson 9 13 .692
Redman 4 6 .667
Scott 2 3 .667

And here’s how they graded out overall.

Player Good Blocks Total Plays Pct.
Pouncey 57 62 .919
Miller 39 43 .907
Spaeth 30 34 .882
Foster 7 8 .875
Adams 48 56 .857
Kemoeatu 50 59 .847
Mendenhall 5 6 .833
Legursky 49 59 .831
Redman 8 10 .800
Starks 50 63 .794
Johnson 11 15 .733
Scott 5 7 .714
Moore 1 3 .333

There are several interesting results in here, but none was more interesting to me than Legursky’s game.

Doug Legursky: When it came to run blocking, Legursky was a beast. Against the Browns, Legursky was excellent at his assigned role, which largely consisted of doubling to help block Maurkice Pouncey’s or Flozell Adams’ man before peeling off to block a linebacker. Legursky’s agility in that role is quite apparent. He understands angles well, which allows him to stuff linemen, too. Legursky’s only bad plays in run blocking were completely understandable. A couple of times the inside linebacker Legursky was assigned to block read the play quickly enough to get to the line before Legursky could get out to block him.

But when it came to pass blocking, Legursky was close to a disaster. The Browns’ 3-4 defense made Legursky’s job in run blocking easier — he was almost always uncovered so he could use his agility to get out to the second level to block linebackers. But the fact that he was uncovered meant he also had to recognize who was blitzing and who wasn’t in pass blocking. That proved to be a problem.

By my count, the Steelers pass blockers could be blamed for 16 quarterback pressures against the Browns (more than one pressure could be recorded on a play). Legursky was responsible for six of them. No one else was responsible for more than two.

Twice Legursky failed to see a linebacker shooting the gap quick enough to get over and block him. Once he was simply driven into the backfield by a bull rush. Once he was in a hurry to get out on a screen pass, so he let his man go through completely unblocked — that one is questionable, as maybe that’s what he was told to do, but usually linemen are asked to block the man lined up over them — even if just briefly — partly to add to the deception of the screen and partly to ensure that, like happened on this play, the rusher doesn’t get to the quarterback before the screen pass can develop.

Legursky was also beaten off the snap one time in what should have led to a sack (Ben Roethlisberger somehow dodge the rusher), and on one play he just couldn’t hold his block long enough.

Flozell Adams: Adams has been a source of a lot of conversations among Steelers fans all season, but if he plays like he did on Sunday, no one can complain.

By my count, Adams was perfect in pass blocking. There wasn’t one play where his man beat him to pressure Roethlisberger. There were several plays where the defensive end or linebacker he was blocking simply gave up. Adams will face a tougher test this weekend against the Dolphins, but this was everything you could ask for in a right tackle as a pass blocker.

In run blocking, Adams was only OK. He’s more of a straight-line player than a guy with much lateral movement, so there was one play where he fired out of his stance to drive his man into next week. The only problem was there was no one there, so he just kept going. He was churning his legs, but he didn’t slide to go pick anyone up. Instead he just fiercely blocked air.

There were two more plays where Adams kind of looked around but blocked no one — that’s fewer than his usual quota of three to four of those plays. He also had a play where the defensive end beat him to the inside to disrupt a running play, another where the defensive end quickly shed his block, a pair of plays where he was surprisingly driven into the backfield and another where he fell down.

Maurkice Pouncey: Israel P., one of our SL readers, has made the point that we all may not be giving Pouncey enough credit for what he’s doing. After watching what he did on Sunday, I’m in complete agreement. Playing against a 3-4 defense, Pouncey’s play is crucial to the success of the running game. If he couldn’t handle the nose tackle, then the Steelers would be incapable of running up the middle. Generally, Pouncey handled his man.

I counted three running plays when Ahtyba Rubin “beat” Pouncey. Twice that was by clogging the hole, and once it was by shedding Pouncey’s block. Rubin ended up with eight total tackles, but the majority of those were several yards downfield, which means Pouncey was doing his job. Pouncey also had one play where he struggled to find anyone to block. In pass blocking, Pouncey was beaten for one pressure.

Max Starks: This wasn’t Starks best game. In run blocking he seemed a step slow at times. He was beaten to the inside three different times on running plays, and he also struggled to stay locked on to his man — he had three plays where his blocked his man, but then let him go too quickly, which allowed his man to help make the tackle.

In pass blocking, Starks was adequate. Nothing more, nothing less. He only gave up two pressures, so he wasn’t awful, but he had a tight end or a running back on his side to help out frequently. He had trouble sticking his block on two occassions (which led to the two pressures), struggled once to keep up with a spin move, was late to pick up a stunting lineman on a handoff once and gave a poor cut block that didn’t do much to slow his man.

Chris Kemoeatu: For a long time, the scouting report on Kemoeatu has been that he struggles with assignments, but put a man ahead of him to hit and he may drive him into Tuesday. At this point, the light bulb, as far as his assignments, seems to have come on. In four of the first five games of the season, Kemoeatu has graded out at 87 percent or better. He’s shown a solid ability to block linebackers as well as linemen, and even his problems in blocking have been more minor ones rather than significant blown assignments.

Like Legursky, Kemoeatu spent a good bit of time on Sunday trying to block linebackers. And generally he did a good job of velcroing himself to the smaller, quicker backers. In pass blocking he gave up two pressures. One of those came when a cornerback blitz distracted him from noticing a linebacker leaking through unblocked. The other came when he was simply driven into the backfield.

In run blocking five of Kemoeatu’s six poor blocks came when he made an initial blow, but failed to maintain his block on a defender. You can fault him for not locking his man up, but he always seemed to know who he was supposed to block. He had several standout blocks in the running game as well, including a couple of blocks that opened up wide holes for Rashard Mendenhall.

Ramon Foster: Because of minor injuries to Legursky and Kemoeatu, and one goal line play where Legursky moved to fullback, Foster got to take eight snaps. He was called for holding on his first play of the game, but after that awful start, Foster didn’t make another mistake. He showed the ability to pull on one running play, but his best block of the game came when he entered the game in a goal line situation. Foster teamed with Flozell Adams to drive the left side of the Browns’ line into the end zone.

Jonathan Scott: Like Foster, Scott got seven snaps in place of Adams. Because he was beaten once around the edge for a pressure, you can’t say he was Adams’ equal in pass blocking (Adams didn’t allow a pressure), and he was also beaten inside on one running play, but overall it was an OK effort by Scott in a limited role.

That does it for the linemen, now lets look at the backs and tight ends.

Heath Miller: The return of Roethlisberger didn’t mean the end of Miller’s role as a pass blocker. He still blocked on nine of the Steelers’ 27 pass plays. There aren’t many Pro Bowl tight ends asked to block on 33 percent of a team’s passes, but hey, he did a good job of it: he didn’t blow one of those blocks.

In the running game, this was a good effort for Miller and Matt Spaeth. Facing a 3-4 defense makes their job a little easier. The Steelers’ base running formation usually has the two lined up side-by-side on one side of the line (usually the right side). Against a 4-3, one of the two tight ends (usually Spaeth) is often asked to block a defensive end. Against a 3-4, the defensive end is lined up in in either the three (between the guard and tackle) or five (head-up on the tackle) technique. That means the tight end is asked to block an outside linebacker, which is a better matchup as far as size and strength.

Miller’s only problem in run blocking came when linebackers shed his block to make a tackle or disrupt a run. That happened on four of Miller’s 34 run blocks, which is still quite good.

Matt Spaeth: I know I write it every week, but Spaeth’s improvement is making a serious difference in the running game. Not only does he show better strength and leg drive, but he clearly gets it. He blocks to the whistle and is developing a nice nasty streak where he’s clearly pissing off linebackers with his effort. If your opponent thinks you’re annoying and you’re not blindly cut-blocking them or blind-siding them after the whistle (both dirty techniques), it’s probably a good sign that you’re doing a good job.

Spaeth did give up one pressure, and in the running game twice he failed to drive his man off the line (and once failed to maintain his block), but overall it was an excellent game for the most-improved Steeler.

David Johnson: Johnson and Redman continue to share the fullback job. Johnson played fullback on nice snaps by my count where he was asked to block, while Redman blocked on six plays as a fullback (Redman also had several carries from the fullback position). Johnson has shown some signs that he’s getting more comfortable at what is still a new role for him. As a fullback this week, he successfully executed seven of nine blocks. The two plays where he struggled came when he once was stacked up in the hole by a linebacker (usually that happens when a fullback blocks too high) and another where he just missed his target. But he also made some nice blocks on linebackers, and unlike past weeks, Mendenhall actually followed him through the hole a couple of times.

As a tight end, he was shed by a defender twice, but otherwise he should an ability to turn his man or push the pile.

Issac Redman: Speaking of Redman, I enjoy watching him play more and more. Partly that’s because he’s a hard-nosed player, but it’s also because he seems to have a better understanding of what to do at fullback nearly every week. He seems to understand blocking angles and how to set up the tailback with his block, and he’s excellent in blitz pickup. The only problem he had came on a pair of poor cut blocks.

Rashard Mendenhall: Speaking of a back who understands blitz pickup, Mendenhall was great at it again on Sunday. Mendenhall shows a willingness to throw his body at anyone to help save his quarterback, and he does an excellent job of recognizing where the blitz is coming from. His only bad play was really as much the fault of the play call as it was his block. On Mike Wallace’s 50-yard catch, Mendenhall was asked to fake a handoff. When that was over, he tried to get over to block a blitzing cornerback, but the play fake had given him a nearly impossible angle to block a speeding cornerback coming from the outside.

Mewelde Moore: I actually like Mewelde Moore. If you look back deep in the FanHouse archives, you’ll see that I have been one of Moore’s biggest proponents. That being said, I don’t want to see him playing as a third-down back for the Steelers these days.

I can see the reason to get Mendenhall out of the game — he has to take a break at some point — but Pittsburgh asks its running backs to block more than catch passes out of the backfield. And when it comes to pass blocking, Moore isn’t the equal of Mendenhall or Redman.

It’s not really Moore’s fault. In the past two years, I’ve rarely seen him fail to recognize who to block. But because of his limited size and strength, he sometimes gets overpowered. We saw that again on Sunday.  Twice he found a linebacker to block, laid into him and then found himself being pushed aside as the linebacker generated pressure on Roethlisberger.

This entry was posted in 2010 steelers, O-Line Analysis, Offensive Line. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Jason Armes

    I really like these O-line breakdowns. Great work!!

  • steeler junky

    Great job, thanks for the well done perspective.

  • Smheart78

    I’ve been struggling to watch the playmakers on our team (Ward, Ben, Mendy, Wallace), instead, putting much of my focus on our O-line. I now find that there’s too much to watch for during the game and must quit reading these great articles.

    • RoB D

      I PVR the games and watch them twice. Once for enjoyment and once to watch the line play. JJ’s pointers are invaluable and make the experience so much better.

      It’s surpriseing how much you begin to perceive when you concentrate on one level of the game. The trenches is where its at…lol

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  • ToddinSyracuse

    Super, super job. A reliable short yardage game will pay dividends every week…

  • Bigswa

    JJ – Outstanding as always – I wish you would get these up so I could have you do my OL grades for each Tuesday show.

    1. What’s your grade for this line so far this year?
    2 Will the tackles hold up against Misi and Wake?

  • Anonymous

    How do you score penalties, JJ?

    • JJ Cooper

      A penalty is always a negative play for the player flagged. So Ramon Foster’s hold was a bad play.

  • Legendaryltd4life

    JJ – This is my first time on this page, and I don’t know who you are, so forgive my naievity. But what gives you credibility as far as knowing what a good block and bad block is? Offensive line play is not black and white like you portray it here in the grading section. The success of the offensive unit is not based solely on the offensive line play. On any given play, anywhere from 5 to 9 guys are blocking on a play. Too often the offensive line unit is criticized when someone else is not doing their job, whether its a TE getting beat inside on a run play, or a receiver not running his hot route when pressure is coming. An offensive unit is 11 men doing their job. Many times the average observer will see a guy running up the middle untouched. One might say, “what is the offensive line doing? The guy was right there!” In reality he might be a “hot” defender, or a back may have him.

    With that being said, offensive line play comes down to communication and execution. Everyone needs to know who is who on the defense, and who is responsible for who. One guy could make a bad blocking call, and expose his linemate to getting picked by a defender. Who are we to say who didn’t communicate properly, and who was responsible for a missed assignment, or bad technique based on a bad blocking call? As 5 guys on a unit, you have to know where the guy next to you is going to be. What happens when for example, Max Starks is pass blocking a defensive end, and the guy goes inside. Maybe Max is expecting help to his inside. What if his left guard is supposed to be there, and he’s not? Then Max gets a “bad block” based on your criteria I suppose.

    Offensive line play is very technical. Blocking technique is emphasized on every type of block on every type of play. What happens if a guy uses poor technique based on what he is coached to do? Would you have any idea what he is coached to do for any reason? Maybe the player gets away with it during the play. Maybe he isn’t exposed. But maybe he gets a “good block” from you.

    What if a running play is supposed to run to the strong side of the formation no matter what, and he cuts it back into an offensive lineman’s defender on the backside? People at home might say, “Pouncey got beat on that play, he’s terrible.” When in reality, the back did the wrong thing. How can the armchair qb with a clear conscience make a determination of who messed up? Maybe Pouncey was doing exactly what he was supposed to do.

    How about when a qb is supposed to check a run play away from the safety, and doesn’t make the right check, and the offensive line is running into a bad look?

    My point is, is that all the armchair qb’s have no idea what players are asked to do on any specific play, and are not qualified to sit here and break down whether a guy had a “good block” or not. This holds true with other positions as well, but not as much so given how these 5 men specifically have to work in tandem, and are often judged as a group on every play.

    As a former offensive lineman, I get tired of hearing criticism bestowed on these men. Generally speaking, you gave a pretty favorable review to this group. I think my comments are a general response to what you typically see amongst sports writers, blog writers, and message board junkies. So I apologize if you are the indirect recipient of some of the ire I feel regarding the commentary on offensive linemen. I just think people’s comments are generally ignorant. I understand that people can form opinions based on what they see, but keep in mind that the grading of offensive line play is basically meritless by people outside of the offensive meeting room.

    Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate your comments regarding the physicality of the players, as well as how a guy does once he locks onto a player. There are some things that are obvious, but for the most part. Offensive linemen do not deserve the disrespect of an outside source “grading” them on every play, when they have no knowledge of the intricate detail of each play, and what players’ responsibilities are.

    JJ, I appreciate the thoroughness of your review of each player and each play, but I would challenge you to limit your film review to a broader description of each player, and not include a play by play analysis…because it is uninformed. After researching you, you seem to know a lot of Steelers football, but I’m just a guy who might know a little something as well.