Analyzing the Steelers O-Line: Patriots, Week 10

The Steelers lost by 13 points Sunday, and they abandoned the running game midway through the second quarter. So you can probably expect that this week’s o-line report isn’t going to be a very happy report.

When it comes to pass blocking, the Steelers offensive line struggled to handle a blitz-happy Patriots defense. That could have been expected — a backup left tackle and left guard ensured Pittsburgh was going to get tested and tested often.

But when it came to the running game, well, that’s where the disaster happened. A week before, Cleveland had run all over the Patriots with Peyton Hillis grinding out first down after first down. Against the Steelers, all of a sudden the same linebackers who struggled looked like Pro Bowlers.

Pittsburgh’s offensive line had a lot to do with that.  It wasn’t entirely their fault, as there were several running plays where a missed block by a tight end or wide receiver caused problems. But there were very few running plays where you could say that everyone did their job as designed. In fact, I only counted five of 18 running plays where the five Steelers’ linemen all did their jobs (as best I could determine them).

If you’re looking for the biggest explanation of why the Steelers couldn’t run the ball, point a finger at No. 79 Trai Essex. On 50 percent of the Steelers’ running plays, Essex failed to do his job (standard caveat: this is all as best I could determine). Considering that the Steelers were extremely run-right oriented Sunday night — they ran to the left only one of 18 rushing plays — having your right guard struggling to block his man causes some serious problems.

Essex’s troubles in the running game were all over the board. On two of the plays, Vince Wilfork stood him up at the line and then slid off his block to make the tackle. On two other plays, he was driven into the backfield by Mike Wright. On one other play he made a poor cut block.

But his biggest issue was his inability to get to the second level to block linebackers. On four different plays Essex failed to block the inside linebacker he was assigned to block. He only successfully blocked inside linebackers on two running plays.

It wasn’t all Essex, there were plenty of other problems. Before we get into that, here’s a look at the grades.

Player Run/Pass Good Plays Total Plays Percentage Pressures Sacks
Adams Pass 38 46 82.6% 7
Essex Pass 54 58 93.1% 4
Pouncey Pass 55 58 94.8% 3
Foster Pass 56 58 96.6% 1 1
Scott Pass 44 58 75.9% 8 1
Miller Pass 5 5 100%
Spaeth Pass 2 3 66.7% 1
Johnson Pass 0 1 0% 1
Hills Pass 12 12 100%
Moore Pass 11 11 100%
Mendenhall Pass 1 2 50% 1
Redman Pass 4 4 100%
Flozell Run 14 17 82.4%
Essex Run 9 18 50%
Pouncey Run 14 18 77.8%
Foster Run 17 18 94.4%
Scott Run 14 18 77.8%
Miller Run 10 16 62.5%
Spaeth Run 8 10 80%
Johnson Run 2 3 66.7%
Hills Run 1 1 100%
Adams Total 52 63 82.5%
Essex Total 63 76 82.9%
Pouncey Total 69 76 90.9%
Foster Total 73 76 96.1%
Scott Total 58 76 76.3%
Miller Total 15 21 71.4%
Spaeth Total 10 13 76.9%
Johnson Total 2 4 50%
Hills Total 13 13 100%
Moore Total 11 11 100%
Mendenhall Total 1 2 50%
Redman Total 4 4 100%

You probably noticed the grades for the Steelers starting tackles were pretty ugly. Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams struggled all night with setting the edges of the pocket. In Adams’ case, his biggest problem was his lack of speed. Four of his eight poor pass blocks came when he was beaten to the outside with speed rushes. Two poor plays came when he was beaten to the inside (which he was vulnerable to because of his fears of getting beaten to the outside) and two came when he failed to pick up a stunting rusher. To Adams’ credit he was one of the Steelers’ best run blockers.

Scott’s problems were more frightening. On 13 different pass plays by my count Scott failed to block effectively. He had all kind of problems — he was beaten by speed rushes on five plays. He was beaten inside twice, and he struggled with who to block once.

But the most disconcerting problem Scott had was the one he appeared to be over. When watching Scott’s disastrous 2009 season, the issue that kept popping up was his inability to sink his butt and stop bull rushes. At his worst, defensive ends and linebackers could put Scott on roller skates — they’d simply drive him back into the quarterback.

It wasn’t that bad against New England — usually a rusher would get leverage and drive Scott back, but he did manage to reset and anchor just in time to at least give Roethlisberger a chance to dodge and move. But that happened on five different plays by my count.

On run plays, Scott’s blocking was better, but he really wasn’t a factor. Whether it was because the Steelers didn’t trust him and Ramon Foster or  some other reason, the Steelers only ran his way once. His problems in run blocking were a penalty for illegal formation, two plays where he blocked no one, a poor cut block and a play where he was beaten to the outside.

Maurkice Pouncey was typically solid, but not as spectacular as you would think if you listen to the commentators. Pouncey shows great mobility — he’s great at reaching and blocking linebackers. But against guys like Vince Wilfork, Pouncey isn’t always able to root him out and drive him out of the hole. To his credit, there were several plays where Wilfork seemed to get the upper hand on Pouncey, but Pouncey then would managed to make his block because of his tenacity.

Wright beat Pouncey twice for pressure and Gerard Warren split him and Essex for a pressure as well. But he was pretty solid in the running game.

Ramon Foster’s grades look very good. But there is one caveat. As I mentioned with Scott, the Steelers were generally running the other way. But you still have to credit him with a very solid game. In pass protection, Foster was very solid, even when he was asked to make a couple of very difficult blocks where he was asked to pull outside to pick up blitzers. In the run game, Foster was nearly flawless — he had a bad cut block, but otherwise there wasn’t much to complain about.

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    Guys, I know that most of his snaps were on garbage time, but, dou you have any comment on Tony Hills?, is he closer to challenge Scott for more snaps?

    • Mike L

      I was just ready to comment about Hills myself. 13 for 13 is quite good. Now this is as small sample but so have his last few games played been small samples. He has athleticism that no one aside from Pouncey posesses and he might have a very good upside. It took Jason Peters (who Hills compares well with, late pick, former tight end, etc) three years to break into the starting lineup in Buffalo and that was on the right side he took over the left side in year 4. I am not saying Hills is the answer, but he could be going forward. When Kemo returns would it be better to have Foster sub for Essex? Checking the Raider’s defense they are 2nd against the pass and 12th against the run, Foster could spark the line on the right side.

      • canadiansteeler

        I’m wondering the same thing, re: replacing Essex with Foster. I was at the game Sunday, and from my nosebleeds (aka, I’m an expert), I did notice Foster bouncing outside of Scott to pick up blitzes. Whether it was by design or not, I’m not sure, but it was impressive.

        Legursky didn’t look like the answer at RG, at least not at the moment. Essex certainly isn’t. Did it look as if there’s very many tactical differences to playing on the left vs. the right guard spots? I know the Steelers run right, so Foster would have to run-block well, but is there anything preventing him from being an improvement on Essex (ex. having the mobility to block at the LOS and move to block the ILB quickly)?

        • StillerFan

          Indeed. We have already blown up the line, might as well keep at it if it is for the betterment of the line. Pouncey has played next to a different guard seemingly every week, I am not worried about him adjusting.

        • Cols714

          I agree. Replace Essex with Foster. He just about has to be better than Essex or Legursky (whom Steelers fans for some reason love, but he hasn’t really shown too much).

          I know they like keeping Foster at LG, but for the love of god, Essex has been terrible since his return.

    • JJ Cooper

      Not yet. Hills had the easiest job possible. Block three and four-man rushes with very little deception when the Patriots are playing prevent defense. And Hills was doing it against players who had been on the field for most of the third/fourth quarter because of a series of long drives and the interception return for a touchdown. So Hills blocked straightforward rushes by gassed defenders. It was encouraging, but not enough to think that he’d fare nearly as well in more extended action..

    • RoB D

      I think many of us are wondering about the Hills situation. He seemed to earn the trust of the coaching staff in the pre-season after being written off by many as an early training camp cut. He doesn’t seem to be a serious challenger for the job at LT and one has to wonder just what they saw in this guy if he can’t backup the position he’s best suited for.

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  • Bigswa

    Pouncey is still a little light in the Pants because of his age, He doesn’t have his grown man strength yet. Give him a few years under the tutelage of a Professional teams strength and conditioning program and you will see a huge difference

  • ktulu22

    Scott looked terrible to me. I cringe to think of him having to block Suggs or Freeney in January. Starks is no pro bowler but he is way better than Scott. Crushing injury for our offense.

    I have always kind of liked Foster. I’d like to see him get a start at RG when Kemo is healthy.

  • Bigswa

    Assuming that the 8 pressures and 1 sack were bad plays, when added to the 44 good plays the sum is 53. There are 5 remaining plays unaccounted for in his breakdown. What happened on those 5 snaps?

    Scott Pass 44 58 75.9% 8 1

    • JJ Cooper

      On Rashad Mendehall’s sack, he had a poor block on a blitzing safety, but the sack came from elsewhere. He then had a bad block where he gave up the corner to a rusher on a complete pass where Roethlisberger got rid of the ball quickly enough that it didn’t result in a pressure. On a play where Adams and Essex both gave up pressures, Scott also failed to win the race to the corner, but it didn’t result in a pressure (Roethlisberger was already taking off and running for 12 yards). Banta-Cain drove him back toward Roethlisberger on another play (the interception), but not close enough for me to call it a QB pressure. And Mike Wright beat him to the inside on a play late in the game where I screwed up and failed to count the pressure, so he actually had nine pressures.

  • Ted

    Yes, RG has been a disastrous spot now for several years running whether it was Simmons, Stapleton, Legursky or Essex, with Stapleton and Vincent the best of the bunch and neither even an average NFL starter at that spot. Do not fret, though, because we will fix that problem in April by drafting more linebackers.

    • Mike L

      I have to disagree with you about drafting linebackers this past draft. First of all, I think anyone will agree after last season ST defense cost us games and was most in need of attention. In the off season we brought in FAs Will Allen at safety and Arnaz Battle at WR but we still needed LB depth behind Harrison and Woodley, a player who could start in case of injury. Drafting 3 in the hopes of getting two good LB seems quite sound. Having two play excellent ST is a huge sucess. The OL was addressed in the 1st rd with Pouncey. There have been many OLmen drafted in the past two seasons but with a new Line coach he needed time to evaluate what he has. Remember there was not room on this team for Urbik, drafting more would not have helped because few college players can step in as rookies and need a few seasons to develop. Former draft selections; 2008 Tony Hills OT 4th rd-130th, 2009 Urbik OG 3rd rd 79th, Ramon Foster UFA, Doug Legursky UFA, 2010 Chris Scott 5th rd- 151st. Having two UFA still with the team is a good sign. Not having developed enough OL from before 2008 is not good but not a problem of this year’s draft. If we knew what we would be getting from a player the day we drafted him it would not be the NFL it would be Madden football.

  • Mcowdery

    It looks like Hills played well for the limited plays he was in there. Hope he continues to improve.

  • Tbart213

    JJ, one day. Maybe it will be in the distant future, but it will one day occur.

    This column will be, not only lacking in painfulness to write, but will be actually joyful to write.

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