Analyzing the Steelers O-Line: Saints, Week 8

Former Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Johnson used to be the Steelers’ offensive line’s worst nightmare. He’d dial up the most aggressive series of blitzes anyone would ever see, filled with eight-man tidal waves of pressure that forced offensive linemen to think quickly or be washed away by bodies exploding through every gap.

Johnson sadly passed away due to cancer last summer. But the Steelers have another blitz-happy coordinator to worry about. Saints’ defensive coordinator Greg Williams decided to send the house against the Steelers, and Pittsburgh struggled to find an answer.

By my count, Ben Roethlisberger was pressured on 12 of his 32 pass plays. But Williams’ approach also dictated what the Steelers could do. In the second half, Pittsburgh finally adjusted to Williams’ pressure, but they did so by limiting Roethlisberger to quick three step drops and short passes. Roethlisberger had averaged 9.5 and 11.2 yards per attempt in his first two games back. He averaged 7.0 against the Saints. His long pass of the game was the 25-yarder that Heath Miller fumbled, and even that was a short pass with a long run after the catch.

With the exception of Rashard Mendenhall’s excellent 38-yard touchdown run, Pittsburgh also struggled to get its running game going. Mendenhall averaged 2.4 yards per carry on his other 14 rushes. There the problem, as it was last week in Miami, appeared largely to be the Steelers’ offensive line’s inability to block linebackers. If a running play goes as designed, usually Mendenhall will have to figure out a way to dodge or break the tackle of a defensive back — you can’t account for blocking everyone on any play, obviously. But in the last two weeks, Mendenhall hasn’t gotten the chance to get to that third level as Jonathan Vilma did a good job of anticipating plays and getting there before Maurkice Pouncey, Trai Essex or Chris Kemoeatu could block him.

When the Steelers did block a play like it was drawn up, the result was Mendenhall’s 38-yard touchdown.

With that preamble out of the way, here’s a look at how the Steelers’ offensive line looked in the running game.

Run Blocking

Player Good Blocks Total Pct.
Spaeth 7 8 87.50%
Miller 27 32 84.38%
Adams 14 17 82.35%
Essex 15 19 78.95%
Kemoeatu 15 19 78.95%
Starks 15 19 78.95%
Johnson 6 8 75.00%
Pouncey 13 19 68.42%
Legursky 1 2 50.00%
Scott 1 2 50.00%
Redman 1 2 50.00%

There are a lot of bad grades here. Flozell Adams was the only offensive linemen to top 80 percent. As we mentioned above, the big problem was not players being physically beaten. It was a problem of getting caught up in traffic, or being too slow to reach and block the assigned man.  For the guards and center, it was a struggle to block linebackers. For Max Starks it was a difficulty with reach blocks. If Starks was asked to drive the man lined up heads-up on him, he did well. When Starks was asked to block a man lined up to his inside on a run the other way, he had plenty of problems.

As you can tell from the grades, the tight ends had a very solid day. David Johnson may have graded out at 75 percent, but he had a crucial block on Mendenhall’s touchdown run, as did Heath Miller. Interestingly Matt Spaeth played less of a role in the run game than normal. He did catch two passes for 21 yards — his first two catches of the year and his best day since 2008.

Pass Blocking

Player Good Blocks Total Pct.
Spaeth 3 3 100.00%
Moore 7 7 100.00%
Starks 32 33 96.97%
Pouncey 31 33 93.94%
Miller 11 13 84.62%
Essex 27 33 81.82%
Scott 4 5 80.00%
Mendenhall 4 5 80.00%
Kemoeatu 26 33 78.79%
Adams 21 28 75.00%
Redman 0 1 0.00%

The grades here could have been uglier if not for the Steelers’ decision to go to more quick passes and the Saints decision to blitz less in the second half. But as it is, it’s bad enough. As good as Adams was in the running game, he was that bad in the passing game. Adams’ problem was blocking speedier defensive ends on artificial turf. By my count, he was beaten either to the inside or outside on a man he recognized as the one he was supposed to block on four different plays. His other three poor pass plays came on an unsuccessful cut block, confusion over who to block on one blitz, and a play where he failed to sustain his block.

Player Pressures Sacks
Adams 4 1
Kemoeatu 3 1
Essex 2 0
Pouncey 1 0
Mendenhall 1 0

You’ll notice that I only have accounted for two sacks — one of them appeared to be Roethlisberger’s fault as he held onto the ball on a play where a delayed linebacker blitz came free.

Chris Kemoeatu‘s problems were more of figuring out who to block (Kemoeatu’s normal problem). But he also was beaten by a nice spin move by Will Smith and by getting off the snap too slowly. You name it, Kemoeatu had a problem with it in pass blocking. At one stretch Kemoeatu had four poor plays in a row.

Trai Essex‘s return was troublesome in the run game, but he was a little better (emphasis on little) in pass blocking. He saved the worst for last however, as he was beaten on each of the Steelers’ final two plays.

Maurkice Pouncey‘s play in the passing game was much more impressive. The only negative play he had was a questionable one — he stayed focus on watching for someone looping from his left on a play where the Saints sent a blitz from the right. It’s possible the line call called for him to do that, but it’s hard to say.

And Max Starks‘ performance in the passing game was pretty good. He gave up some ground, but he did a good job of ensuring that he stayed between the defensive ends and Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger had a couple of plays where he had to step up slightly, but that was no big deal — it was the times Roethlisberger had to dodge rushers coming free up the middle.

It’s also worth mentioning the solid play of Rashard Mendenhall in blitz pickup. He is a very willing blocker who lays some crushing licks on linebackers. The only problem came on when he was late getting over to pick up a blitzer, but even then he managed to lay a decent block.

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  • SteelerBill

    Picture me pulling my hair out of my head right now….the reason is that there is nothing wrong with the ‘short passing game’ Three step drops may be the way to go early in a game – it backs teams off. You know other teams are going to attempt to duplicate that type of pressure – so let’s make them pay for it….short 3 step and quick slants to Wallace and Hines mixed in with runs….the Pats have been doing it for years…..once they back off then we have our full compliment of passing plays…

    Oh and good morning gentlemen

  • Cobra

    Great work JJ, your stats reinforce what we know about the OL. In a nutshell we have a future pro-bowler at Center with Pouncey and competent tackle play, The guards have been and will continue to be the real weakness of this team until we upgrade them in the draft/free agency.

    Couple of interesting things the numbers show

    FLozell can still be dominate in the run game but is a liability in pass pro on the edge. This can be game planned to an extent by adding a TE/RB to help chip on the play.

    Starks is a consumate pro at LT and while he’s never going to be great he’s a steady performer against the pass and run. He’s susceptible to the occassional bad game but overall he’s the last guy we need to talk about

    Kemo — Can overwhelm opposition at POA especially when he pulls on running plays, but the guy gets spun around like a top in pass pro. I’m not sure moving him to RG is the thing to do either, but either way LG should be looked at for an upgrade. Thank god Pouncey has the ability to make up for his blunders in protection as he’s demonstrated the ability to redirect off his blocks to a greater threat seamlessly

    Which brings me to RG — Put in Legursky who really doesn’t have the sand in the pants to be fulltime starter IMO and Essex who is best used as a situational player, this is clearly the greatest need on the line.

    As for a general comment of getting to the linebackers in the running game, notice that NO actually gameplanned to stop the run. They largely went to a 4-3 Under defense which brings the SAM down on the line with the 4 DL and only leaves only one uncovered OL. Against this D, Kemo and Pouncey who are the best athletes are covered and must be able to get off their blocks. NO has very god size and were able to neutralize any 2nd level blockers. I expect to see this used more against the Steelers because Pouncey is really most effective when in space and can be somewhat neutralized at the LOS.

    Anyhow that’s my 2 cents.

    • JJ Cooper

      Great post Cobra. Very insightful. If you don’t mind I may expand on this for a blog post later today or tomorrow.

  • Jason Armes

    Great breakdown as usual.

    Would like to mention the block Kemoeatu put on that safety one one running play. I think Collingworth mentioend it as well. But it was quite comical to watch the poor safety get met with Kemoeatu and just got flattened.


    • Gretz

      Manny Sanders had a great block early in the game where he planted a defensive end. Can’t remember which one it was, though.

      • Jason Armes

        Awesome. I must have missed it. With a 4 year old, and a newborn, I missed parts of the game. LOve my TIVO, will see if I can find that.


  • Bigswa

    Nice Explanation of 4-3 Over/Under

  • bengt

    I assume you mixed up Heath Miller’s numbers for run and pass blocking.