Welcome back for another year of in-depth looks at the Steelers’ offensive line. As I do most years, I’m looking at tweaking how I do the line breakdowns, but for now, I’m going to focus much more on the players battling for jobs rather than explain to you that Maurkice Pouncey had six good plays in seven snaps. Let me know what you think about the new preseason format.
Chris Scott got the chance he’d been waiting for on Friday night against the Redskins.
The 2010 fifth-round pick began training camp deep on the depth chart at guard behind last year’s starters Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster as well as center/guard Doug Legursky. Considering Scott’s versatility, you could have argued that Keith Williams, a 2011 draftee, was not far behind him on the depth chart either.
But thanks to his solid play, and the absence of Kemoeatu thanks to a minor knee injury, Scott moved up the depth chart and earned a starting spot for the first preseason game of the season.
This was Scott’s big chance to show that he’s a worthy competitor for the starting right guard job. So Scott went out and . . . played like a rookie.
He was beaten for a sack when he had a problem figuring out who to block. He was also beaten to the outside on a running play that led to Isaac Redman getting hit in the backfield. In fact, on one series, I counted four of seven plays where Scott failed to effectively execute his block.
And for all that, I still wouldn’t be shocked if he’s the Steelers’ starting right guard at some point this season, and a pretty good one.
Most of Scott’s mistakes, as best can be determined without knowing the play calls, appeared to be because of hesitancy or assignment issues. Those could almost be expected when you remember that this is the first NFL game that Scott has ever gotten to play (he missed all of preseason last year on the physically unable to perform list). But he also showed solid strength and the kind of mobility that the Steelers’ current starting guards (Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster) lack.
On the first sack the Steelers allowed, Scott made what can best be described as a rookie mistake. At the snap, the Redskins were in a pretty standard nickel formation, with two defensive tackles and two standup defensive ends, with two linebackers bunched five yards off the line of scrimmage.
Scott had a man, Jarvis Jenkins, lined up in the two-technique, i.e., on his inside shoulder. So if I may attempt to get into his head, he was worried about that defensive tackle first, but he was also concerned about the defensive end, lined up outside of right tackle Willie Colon, in case the Redskins slanted or stunted their line from the Steelers right to left. If that happened, there could be a situation where Scott would need to pick up the defensive end so that Colon could pick up a blitzing linebacker looping past.
What he didn’t seem to account for was the possibility that the Redskins would loop their line the other way, with the other defensive tackle (lined up in a similar two-technique between center Maurkice Pouncey and guard Ramon Foster) looping all the way over to attack Scott’s inside (left) shoulder.
Scott should have been worried about just such a loop because Maurkice Pouncey also had responsibility to help pick up an outside blitzer. Because of Pouncey’s athleticism, they started late last season to give him an occasional responsibility to backpedal and then peel out to pick off an outside rusher. It’s something you’ll somewhat frequently see teams do with guards (it’s called a molly block), but something that is beyond what you can ask most centers to do. In Pouncey’s case, he quickly backpedaled, saw no one shooting through inside, then peeled out past Jonathan Scott to pick up a blitzing cornerback. He didn’t really need to make the block, as fullback David Johnson was ready to pick him up, but it did show off Pouncey’s elite athleticism.
But while that was happening, Scott took two quick steps, readied to block Jarvis Jenkins (the DT lined up on his inside shoulder) and looked surprised to find Jenkins slanting sharply enough to end up locked up with Colon. By the time he had recovered from that mistake and looked back inside Stephen Bowen was already past him and ready to wrap up Byron Leftwich.
On his worst run block, a toss to Redman that was turned into a zero-yard gain, Scott was beaten by Jenkins to the outside, but on that play it appeared to be bad luck as much as bad technique that led to the problems. Jenkins was lined up on Scott’s outside shoulder, and at the snap, he fired off to shoot the gap. Scott was supposed to reach-block Jenkins, a difficult block even if Jenkins had just been reading the play. But when Jenkins decided to shoot the gap, it became very difficult for Scott to reach him.
After that awful series late in the first quarter, Scott did settle down. He appears to have no problem reaching linebackers for second-level blocks. And like Pouncey, he is a guy who is likely to put a guy on his butt a split second before the whistle — he doesn’t give up on the play until the play is over. That little bit of a mean streak is something you always want to see in a lineman, but a lot of guys don’t have it.
The Steelers appear ready to move on to try other options after Scott’s bad first game, but I hope they give him another shot. Ramon Foster is likely as good as he’s going to be. Scott appears to have some room to develop.
In other line news and notes:
• On a recent podcast, I mentioned that Tony Hills could dominate in the fourth quarter this preseason and I wouldn’t think it meant a thing. I don’t have my exact words in front of me, but the general comment was that Hills needed to do things in the first half of games to show any reason to get excited.
Hills played the entire second quarter at left tackle, and I have to admit, he was impressive. Sure the Redskins didn’t throw their most complex blitz schemes at him, but he was lined up at times against Brian Orakpo and he was flawless. That’s a much tougher test than he received last year.
The Steelers did give Hills some help at times with Orakpo — a running back would either help him on the outside or chip him on the way out into the pattern. But it didn’t look like he needed it, as usually he had Orakpo handled and the running back’s block was just a bonus.
On Redman’s 22-yard touchdown run, Hills’ seal block on the outside on Orakpo helped get Redman free. It wasn’t a dominating block, but he did a good job of turning Orakpo to create a good seal on the outside.
If the Steelers don’t sign another offensive lineman, and with every day that goes by that seems less likely, Hills appears set to make the team again. And as bad as he’s been in the past, right now he’s one of only two backup lineman on the roster who can be considered a candidate to step up and play at left tackle if Jonathan Scott is injured.
When Hills moved to guard apparently the Steelers were impressed — they’ve given him more snaps in practice this week. This isn’t Hills’ first time playing guard, as he was thrown in at left guard for two snaps in last year’s regular season Titans game. If the Steelers are going to try to develop some more versatility from Hills, the move makes sense, but he doesn’t look like a starter at guard yet in my (admittedly amateur) eyes.
If you are looking for a play that explains Hills’ potential problems at guard, look at the Steelers’ first-and-10 play with 9:53 remaining in the fourth quarter. Hills is lined up at right guard and he pulls across the line to lead the way for tailback John Clay. Hills has no problems with pulling as he has good mobility and reasonably good feet, and he has no problems finding his target — in this case a Redskins’ linebacker. But when Hills hits him, his 6-foot-6 frame betrays him.
As a somewhat lanky 6-foot-6, Hills is going to have trouble getting low enough on these kind of blocks. He hits the linebacker high; instead of driving him out of the hole, he’s stood up and stalemated in the hole. He did work hard to keep his legs churning to the whistle, but it will likely always be tough for someone as tall as Hills to get low and get leverage on blocks like that.
That said, having some ability to play guard would help Hills as a gameday backup. Pittsburgh only dresses two reserve lineman most weeks, so whoever serves as the backup tackle also needs to have some ability to play guard.
- Willie Colon was outstanding. After watching him play, there are a few less worries about his comeback from an Achilles’ injury.
- Doug Legursky may have played well in the Super Bowl, but the Redskins’ game was a good reminder of why he might be best as a versatile backup. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, I pointed out that Legursky would probably fare reasonably well against the Packers because he wasn’t going to be lined up head up against B.J. Raji for most of the game. But when Legursky has to line up directly across from a defensive lineman, his best attributes (great agility) are less important than his short arms.
At times last week Legursky had trouble where he lost the hand position battle. He was tossed to the ground on his first snap at center (at 11:52 remaining in the second quarter). Two plays later he was caught lunging with his head down and was beaten to ruin a third-and-one running play.
- If you’re wondering about the rookies, I counted two plays where Keith Williams put his man on the ground, although he also had a number of blown blocks. There weren’t a whole lot of challenging plays during Williams’ brief time on the field, but he did show some impressive strength and decent agility.
As far as second-round pick Marcus Gilbert, I want to see more. He did fine in late-game action, but he wasn’t really tested that much. I look forward to seeing more from in upcoming weeks.
- During training camp, tight end Jon Gilmore has apparently been unimpressive as a blocker. It was hard to see that in the Redskins’ game. On what was generally a poor day of blocking by Steelers’ tight ends, Gilmore did a very solid job.
Gilmore looked quite comfortable handling linebackers and defensive ends at tight end. His competitors? Not so much. David Johnson was beaten badly on a third and one play when he lined up at tight end. Johnson did look better when he was working as an H-back. Jamie McCoy got a chance to try to fill Johnson’s usual role as the team’s fullback, but he struggled to find and square up his target.