Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I hope today is a great day for everyone full of turkey, plenty of football, family and friends.
And I’m thankful that on Thanksgiving, I can write about a very solid effort by the Steelers’ o-line instead of the debacle that was the Patriots’ game. The Raiders gave the Steelers the kind of challenge that Pittsburgh prefers to have–they lined up with their front four and expected to pressure Ben Roethlisberger consistently withhout resorting to blitzing. To make it even better, they then matched up man-to-man in the secondary (especially when the Steelers went to their four and five-wide receiver packages), which gave Roethlisberger plenty of room to run if he decided to tuck the ball and take off.
The result? The Raiders sacked Roethlisberger only twice all game, and both of the sacks were due more with the play call and coverage than any fault of the line. I counted only seven pass plays where Roethlisberger was pressured. By my count the Raiders rushed three men twice, four men 26 times, five men three times and six men three times. Roethlisberger was 1-of-3 against six man rushes and 2-of-3 against five-man blitzes. Surprisingly, one of the two sacks came against a three-man rush (he was 1-for-1 against them when he got the ball off) and he was 16-for-22 against four-man rushes.
This offensive line wants to face a team that lines up in a 4-3 and rushes with its four linemen. Blitzing and hiding where the pressure is going to come from gives the Steelers’ line fits, partly because as a quite large and relatively immobile group, it’s hard for the guards and tackles to start blocking one guy, hand him off and quickly pivot to block another man in another direction. But if a defensive tackle wants to line up and just try to blow a guard off the ball? That’s the best possible scenario for the Steelers.
That’s generally what Oakland tried to do, and we can only hope the Steelers are lucky enough to face more teams in the second half that decide to leave the blitz at home.
What Oakland did against the running game was much more difficult to handle. The Raiders lined up a lot in 4-3 under, with one of the defensive tackles lined up on center Maurkice Pouncey. Partly that was to ensure that Pouncey was tasked with blocking a defensive lineman instead of a linebacker (something he’s much better at than the Steelers’ starting guards). On top of that, the Raiders’ linebackers were very aggressive at shooting gaps to attempt to disrupt the play in the backfield. One of the two “inside” linebackers (technically the weak or the middle linebacker) would shoot the gap while the other would read and try to fill following up behind him.
Thankfully for Pittsburgh, fullback David Johnson had maybe his best game of the season. Several times Johnson managed to deflect the hard-charging linebacker, giving Mendenhall time to let the hole open up. When he did meet a linebacker in the hole, Johnson also did a better job of driving him out of the hole. Maybe because of that, Mendenhall did a better job of following Johnson as well.
Before rolling out the overall numbers, I also wanted to just point out what a good job offensive line coach Sean Kugler is doing. There have been years where the Steelers have been able to line up the same five offensive linemen week in and week out. And when there have been injuries, usually in the past it’s been one guy going down and another stepping up.
This year’s laundry list of injuries has made Kugler’s job much tougher than that. There have been multiple injuries on multiple weeks. Just this week, we saw Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey and Jonathan Scott all go down at different points in the game.
Here’s the overall numbers for last Sunday:
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As far as the pressures, here’s how I broke them down. I didn’t blame either of the sacks on any particular lineman–one was a play-action bootleg where the linebacker rushed instead of following Hines Ward (who was coming across the field in a play that is a staple of every NFL team’s playbook). If the linebacker doesn’t take the wide receiver, than the receiver is supposed to be open for a quick pass. Roethlisberger decided to look further downfield, and that gave Lamarr Houston time to sack him. On the other one, Roethlisberger was given decent time, couldn’t find anyone open, then tried to step up in the pocket, which ruined blocking angles and led to a sack.
Sorry for how these pressures display–ours seems to be the only WordPress installation that doesn’t understand that table widths can be less than 100 percent of the width of the text.
Now on to the individual comments.
The first thing most everyone is going to want to know is how did Ramon Foster do. A week ago, we talked about how Trai Essex was playing very poorly in the running game (the post was entitled, Trai Essex, you are the weakest link). Thankfully, coach Mike Tomlin decided to shake things up and give Foster a try. Foster wasn’t great, which isn’t surprising–no backup offensive lineman on this team has greatness in their future, but he also wasn’t awful. His problems were generally ones of mobility (and the aggressiveness of the Raiders’ line). When Foster tried to pull, the Raiders often had the defensive linemen lined up against him shoot the opening gap, so Foster would peel back to block him. That would disrupt the play, but I can’t blame him too much for avoiding the carnage of a lineman in the backfield unblocked.
Foster also had a poor cut block, some problems getting to linebackers to lock them up and a couple of pass plays where he was driven into the backfield. But overall, he was solid enough and looks deserving of another start.
The Steelers’ other fill-in Jonathan Scott had another workmanlike effort. Watching Scott reminds you of seeing a slightly-drunk knife thrower at the circus. You worry that at any moment you’re going to see some carnage, but usually it works out. Scott often sets the corner in pass blocking, but because of his lack of balance and speed, he too often sets it too close to Roethlisberger. So play-in and play-out, he’s within a step or two of causing a sack or a pressure. But most of the time, he manages to maintain his base, stop the rusher two steps from Roethlisberger and everything’s fine. When he fails to keep his center of gravity low enough, then he gets driven backwards and we’re looking at a play where Roethlisberger has to step up, slide over or otherwise get away.
The good news is even in most of those cases, Scott still is blocking his man, so it’s generally something that Roethlisberger (who has the pocket escapability of Houdini) can handle. Scott was also flagged for holding.
In the run game, Scott is fine with blocking down on unsuspecting defensive tackles or handling a man he’s lined head up on. And he’s not bad at going to find a linebacker. But if he’s asked to do a reach block he has problems. Admittedly, the reach block is one of the tougher blocks to pull off, as you are trying to get the outside shoulder of a lineman on your outside.
At this point, I’ve learned to accept Flozell Adams for what he is. There are plays where he looks like he decided he needed to take a siesta, but generally he has enough strength and savvy to make it work. He’s been very consistent and he handled the Raiders defensive ends with very little help.
Chris Kemoeatu’s grades look bad this week, but partly that’s because he was lined up primarily against Richard Seymour in the first half (one of the best defensive tackles in the game), and partly because he struggled in his first couple of plays back into the game after he left with an injury.
It’s great news to hear that Maurkice Pouncey didn’t suffer a serious injury. Pouncey was as solid as ever when he was in the game. When he was out, Doug Legursky started well, but quickly ran into trouble trying to root out big defensive tackles.
When Trai Essex came into the game to replace Jonathan Scott, he blew his block on three of the five plays–don’t anyone be screaming for Essex to replace Scott at left tackle anytime soon. Yes, he does play with better balance, but Scott appears to be quicker and a better fit for the outside. Essex was a little better when he replaced Kemoeatu inside. On the 13 plays at that position, his man made the tackle on at least two of them and he was also flagged for a personal foul.
The backs did a solid job in blitz pickup, they just didn’t have much to do. As far as the tight ends, Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth had some successes and some struggles, but at this point it would be hard to say that Miller is a better blocker than Spaeth.