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.
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.
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.
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.