Craig Wolfley is one of the most visible Steelers’ experts out there. With his blog posts and podcasts at craigwolfley.com, his work with cohort Tunch Ilkin at ESPN 970, his writings at Steel City Insider and his duties as the Steelers’ sideline reporter, Wolfley is everywhere.
He’s also one of the most entertaining and insightful experts around. And he was nice enough to spend 20 minutes talking offensive line play with the Lounge on Tuesday. As you would expect, he has plenty of opinions about the Steelers’ line play. This isn’t going to be a story as much as an interview because there’s no reason to try to paraphrase someone as quotable and engaging as Wolfley.
When Wolfley saw Ramon Foster slide from guard to tackle as an emergency measure on Saturday, he knew exactly what Foster was going through. Wolfley was a guard for almost his entire career, but as an eight-year veteran he was moved to offensive tackle as an emergency measure. He found it wasn’t an easy transition.
“As a guard, you’re a phone-booth fighter. The angles are much more sheer. At tackle, it’s like being in a parking lot fight. There’s a lot of room to cover. To be playing guard and then switch to tackle in a game is very difficult,” Wolfley said.
As Wolfley saw it, while Saturday’s o-line performance wasn’t perfect he was impressed with how the Steelers’ line held together despite injuries and illness.
“I though the line play was pretty good, especially considering the fact that Flozell became Flu-Zell. That first 10-play, 80 yard drive when he came off the field, he was wobbling. I was thinking at the time he must have gotten donked in the head. Then he didn’t come out for the second half and Trai Essex went in for him.
“Then when Jonathan Scott went down, out of the locker room comes Flozell. He tried to immediately come on the field. Mike Tomlin and Sean Kugler had to hold him back. So he comes back to the sidelines. He was so wobbly that he had to lean on Antwaan Randle-El. Flozell’s 6-foot-8 and Randle-El’s like 5-foot-7, so he was at a perfect elbow rest height for him.”
Seeing Adams try to gut it up and play didn’t surprise Wolfley.
“I can’t say enough about what Flozell Adams has brought to this line all year. He was replacing Willie Colon. Colon was the edge guy. He was the guy who kept other nasty guys on the other side in check. Flozell’s brought that same leadership,” Wolfley said.
Adams had a couple of high-ankle sprains this year, although he missed very little time with the injuries. As Wolfley explained, those ankle injuries have forced Adams to become even more of a technician.
“There’s no question. When it comes to redirecting around the pocket it’s a matter of timing your hands with your feet,” Wolfley said. “It’s all about stepping while you punch. Redirecting the guy at tackle, it’s step and punch, time your hands and feet. He’s had a couple of high ankle sprains and he hasn’t missed any time. Because of that he has to play with his head. He can’t chase, he has to let the defensive end come to him.
“Brother, he is so strong. Around the Jets … I remember a play where they overloaded his side. One of two guys he’s going to pick up, the back’s going to pick up the other. His man rushed, and he locked on with right arm. He planted the guy. It was funny. His arm was locked on the guy and the guy is just stopped. When that other guy comes inside,. smacks the guy in the grill and the guy just buckles.”
Wolfley did agree that this hasn’t always been a flawless offensive line, but he likes what he’s seen in recent weeks. As he sees it, an excellent effort against the Jets was a key step toward this line playing together.
“(The Jets game) is where I think the offensive line found their momemtum,” he said. “Tunch likes to say that ‘Just because it is, doesn’t mean it’s so.’ Just because the offensive line wasn’t that good, doesn’t mean it’s so.”
Tunch and I both point to 1984. We didn’t have a good line at the start of the year. But starting about the last four or five games we had the lineup. We caught fire and played with tremendous tenacity. We believed in each other. We worked hard. That offensive line was pretty darn good by the time we got to the AFC Championship game. We were tearing ‘em up. The only problem was they had Dan Marino.
“Just because it is doesn’t mean it’s so. Starting since that Jets game they have played pretty well.”
The credit for that goes to offensive line coach Sean Kugler, according to Wolfley. Since Kugler arrived in Pittsburgh, Wolfley has liked what he’s seen from the new line coach.
“Number one, he’s played the position. He brings an attitude. He celebrates the physical style of play. When their coach becomes someone that they want to be one of his guys, then you want to be that guy. If you see highlights on film of guys throwing guys down, you want to be the guy throwing guys down. He engenders a great sense of guys busting their humps for him,” he said.
“And number two, he’s a great teacher. Whether it’s pass pro or run blocking, it’s not enough to say, you’ve got him. He demonstrates the footwork and the body position and the hand position. What they got now, you have tremendous communication between Ben Roethlisberger and the line. And Maurkice does such a great job of directing traffic. I said right from get go, let the guy play center. That’s who he is. I’m glad they did. From him to start from get go on working and learning has been great.
“[Maurkice] had the game brains, Kugler said. It’s not just book knowledge. Each play becomes a living breathing entity. I played with guys with tremendous knowledge, but they lacked the common sense. Things like never passsing up another jersey. And there are other guys whose book knowledge you question, but they knew what to do at the right crucial moment.”
Pouncey’s play against the Ravens was particularly fun to see.
“It was apparent Maurkice could handle (the job),” Wolfley said. “I was telling Tunch during the broadcast, whenever he gets a free release it’s like watching someone beat up on a senior citizen. Ray Lewis has to hide behind his big boys. Whenever Maurkice got a free shot, he did it.
“It’s not Ray Lewis. McClain isn’t as good as Bart Scott. I think (Scott) is who made the defense. As a running mate you had to eyeball him. It’s like with the Steelers. Timmons brings such a bang that you can lose your focus on Potsie Farrior.”
To get a little more technical, I asked Wolfley what he thought about Kugler’s techniques. The Steelers are taking a different approach to zone blocking, and it’s right in line with Wolfley’s line of thinking.
“The difference is they take a power base step. They don’t back step (with their first step). What I find hideous is to take a bucket step because it puts you at such a disadvantage. I’m an aggressive sort of person, that’s bothersome. He’s eliminated the bucket step. It’s a power-based zone. You can come with power. You can come off with strength. When you play a soft zone, you have the mentaility of a counter puncher. You’re weight is centered backwards. You’re not rolling forward with your power. And it’s not an aggressive move. You can’t put yourself in a demeanor of whacking the daylights out of a guy. That’s why I have problems with a traditional zone-blocking scheme.”
To explain that a little more, the first step of a traditional zone-blocking scheme is backwards. The Steelers zone blocking begins with a step forward, which may create a slightly larger gap, but also enables the Steelers lineman to try to drive their man off the line of scrimmage.