In 2009, the Steelers lined up with Willie Colon starting at right tackle, Max Starks starting at left tackle, Justin Hartwig starting at center and Trai Essex at right guard for all 16 games. In fact, the only linemen to not start all 16 games last year was left guard Chris Kemoeatu (he missed the final four games).
They may not have been the best offensive line in football (OK, they weren’t close to being one of the best), but they did have continuity.
This year, the line is better, but they definitely don’t have any continuity. Thanks to Colon’s preseason torn Achilles, the Steelers starting five didn’t get to play one snap together. Then Trai Essex missed four games, Max Starks missed one. Flozell Adams and Chris Kemoeatu missed snaps as well, which explains why the Steelers have played nine different offensive linemen this year (the starting five, plus Jonathan Scott, Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster and Tony Hills).
But even with those injuries, nothing was like what the Steelers faced on Monday night. Just minutes into the game, Starks suffered a stinger. Then Kemoeatu went down with a sprained knee. And soon after that, Pouncey bruised his leg and had to be carried off the field.
Pittsburgh dresses only seven linemen on a normal gameday. So when Pouncey went down, the Steelers were faced with a pair of unappealing choices. One of the injured linemen could go back in, or one of the tight ends could become an offensive tackle.
Thankfully for Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense, Starks managed to gut out several series before Pouncey limped back into the game. Matt Spaeth was spared the ordeal of trying to play left tackle. Starks’ return seems even more unreal now that there are reports his injury will cause him to miss the rest of the season.
The Steelers shuffling along the line (Jonathan Scott moved out of position to guard when Pouncey went down) helps explain a little of the Steelers’ struggles on Monday night, but it doesn’t entirely excuse what was a very inconsistent effort from the front five. At times, Pittsburgh did managed to run the ball successfully–most notably on their second-to-last offensive possession of the game. But they struggled to protect Ben Roethlisberger and had Rashard Mendenhall dodging too many tacklers in the backfield.
The only sack the Steelers allowed came, in my opinion, on a play where it was not the line’s fault. However, I did count three pass plays where a normal quarterback would have gone down with a sack. On those three plays, Roethlisberger went 3-for-3 for 13 yards.
Here’s a look at the stats as I logged them last night. As every week, each blocker was logged on each play to determine if they helped make the play a success or contributed to its failure. We don’t know the play call, so there is a chance for misinterpretation, but on most plays a lineman’s responsibility is quite clear, and we’re only looking to see what the result was, not grading the players on perfect technique.
With that preamble out of the way, here’s how the stats looked on Monday night.
As mentioned above, it’s hard not to give Max Starks a pass on his stats considering he was playing when he should have been sitting on the bench, but then his 80 percent success rate is actually one of the better percentages among the front five. Of his poor plays, three came when he either couldn’t reach his man or couldn’t sustain a block. With his injury he has a pretty good excuse.
Trai Essex doesn’t have the same doctor’s note. Essex normally has plenty of strength for the position, but against the Bengals, he was frequently driven backwards. By my count, there were eight different plays where Essex’s man drove him into the backfield or stood him up in short-yardage situations. Essex also was beaten for a pair of quarterback pressures.
This wasn’t Flozell Adams’ best game either. Adams’ problem is one of consistency. When he locks up his man in the running game, he destroys him, but he too often blocks no one or gets one shove before losing his man. Of his poor plays on Monday, several came when he was beaten off the snap and several others came when he couldn’t sustain blocks. The good news is that Adams was again consistent in pass blocking, which is where he’s most needed.
Like Starks, Maurkice Pouncey has an injury excuse if he wanted to use it, but in his case, he actually played better after his injury. Of his nine poor snaps, six of them came in his first 10 plays. At the start of the game, Bengals defensive tackle Domata Petko was having his way with Pouncey. But Pouncey settled down and played better in the second half.
Doug Legursky got plenty of playing time between Kemoeatu’s injury at guard and Pouncey’s injury at center. He generally played pretty well (which seems to be a theme when Legursky enters as a sub), showing the same kind of agility that stands out among a relatively stiff group of Steelers’ linemen. But his worst play of the game was his last one–he whiffed on a block on Reggie Nelson that would have given the Steelers a much-needed first down.
Chris Kemoeatu had a cameo appearance before leaving with a knee injury. He was actually playing a solid game before the injury. His two poor plays came on an ineffective cut block and a play where Petko beat him–something Petko was doing to whoever lined up on.
We got a sneak peek of what we’re likely to see at left tackle for quite a while–Jonathan Scott filled in when Starks went out. It’s not going to surprise you to find out that Scott isn’t as good a pass blocker as Starks. Of his 22 plays in pass blocking, Scott gave up three pressures, which was easily the worst percentage on the team. But otherwise, he was solid, especially in run blocking where he was quite adequate.