When Jonathan Scott and Marcus Gilbert both suffered minor knee injuries in last week’s game against the Eagles, the Steelers looked around, apparently realized their lack of depth at tackle and decided to bring back veteran Trai Essex.
It’s good news for Essex, who had been waiting for a contract, and it does add a versatile lineman to the Steelers’ mix. But it’s also a sign of failure for the Steelers young offensive linemen.
Pittsburgh entered the preseason with five candidates to fill the open right guard spot, and three players who could legitimately fill the job of being the backup tackle. Two weeks into the preseason, Pittsburgh decided it needed to bring in Essex to be the backup guard/tackle who will likely dress on gameday.
In essence, they looked around and realized that while they had five candidates, they have a very short list of linemen they are comfortable with. After watching the Eagles game, I can see why. Many candidates were given a chance, few have stepped up to the opportunity.
But before we talk about some of the guys who are struggling, let’s acknowledge the big surprise. Tony Hills, offensive guard, has a much better ring to it than Tony Hills, offensive tackle. That much is clear after two games of the preseason.
Hills may be better known as the last man standing when it comes to the Steelers’ competition for the right guard spot. From Chris Scott to Doug Legursky to Keith Williams to Ramon Foster, the other guard candidates have all shown significant flaws.
Now Hills isn’t exactly prepping for a spot in the Pro Bowl. But his mobility has proven to be pretty useful at guard. Hills does a good job of getting to the second level to block linebackers, and once he locks up a linebacker he does a solid job of staying on his block, something that is frequently a problem for Legursky and Foster. And he has a little bit of a mean streak as well, as he likes to generally play to the whistle.
When Hills gets into trouble at guard, it’s usually because he’s playing too high. We mentioned a play last week where he was struggled when pulling because he hit a linebacker too high. We saw the same thing in different situations this week. On Ben Roethlisberger’s second pass of the game, Hills was slow off the snap and was caught playing too high. The result? Anthony Hargrove drove him into the backfield like Hills was wearing roller skates. Roethlisberger’s escapability in the pocket ensured it was a bad play but not a sack, but it was a rough start for the fourth-year lineman.
Hills’ problems with playing too high were more apparent when he slid out to left tackle after injuries to Jonathan Scott and Marcus Gilbert. There were multiple plays where Trent Cole drove Hills back into the pocket. Interestingly, while most tackles’ biggest problems come from speed rushes, Hills seemed to have more problem overplaying for speed rushes, which opened up the inside for defensive ends with an out and up move. If you tell me that Hills is starting at guard in Week 1, I think he’s got a 50 percent shot of playing well enough to avoid being benched. If he’s forced to play left tackle I would fear for Roethlisberger’s safety.
The rest of the guard candidates? It wasn’t pretty.
Ramon Foster is never going to be a particularly nimble guard. He’s more of a straight-ahead road grader. But in the first series against the Eagles, he wasn’t doing a very good impression of a bulldozer either. On two of the Steelers first three running plays, Foster was driven into the backfield by his man. In both cases he recovered to at least occupy his man enough to let Rashard Mendenhall by, but you’d rather see those stalemates taking place at or on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Foster did show a mean streak, although he may have taken that a bit too far with an absolutely brutal hit at the whistle on an Eagles linebacker. The play came just three minutes into the game. On a dump-off pass to Isaac Redman, Foster followed the play, then laid a cut block on linebacker Jamar Chaney just as the whistle was getting ready to blow. It wasn’t a late hit, but it sure was the kind of block that could end a guy’s season.
Foster did show flashes where he was able to use his strength to put his man on the ground, but his inability to prevent penetration was more apparent than his ability to dominate his man. On one particularly poor play Foster was driven into the backfield, which caused him to run into a pulling Legursky and ruining the play. Foster also gave up a sack. For a veteran, it was a pretty ugly performance.
Chris Scott got a chance to try out for the guard job in the first preseason game. He played poorly, and apparently was immediately dropped from the competition. He played right tackle exclusively against the Eagles, where he showed that he’s probably better off competing for the guard job. Scott wasn’t a complete disaster at right tackle, but he did look a little slow off the ball and generally he relied on doing just enough to push his man past the back of the pocket.
I would argue that Scott would still be a viable candidate for the guard job. Most of his problems in Week 1 were more assignment issues and technique problems than physical issues. As a young player, one can expect that some of those issues would improve as he gets more experience. But it would appear that Pittsburgh has largely given up on the idea of Scott being a guard candidate, and the signing of Essex could even put his roster spot at risk. Scott’s struggles at tackle ding the argument of his versatility, and if he’s not considered a legitimate guard prospect, then he could be the odd man out now that a veteran guard/tackle swingman is on the roster.
As far as Doug Legursky, he was adequate against the Eagles, but he struggled to stick blocks on linebackers. That’s not normally a problem for the mobile Legursky, so maybe it was just a bad night. But it’s hard to say in the first two games that Legursky has done enough to go from solid backup center/guard to starting guard. That being said, Legursky is the one of these candidates who seems to have a helmet guaranteed on gameday, as there is no other backup center on the roster.
As far as Keith Williams, he showed flashes of talent against the Eagles, but also plenty of problems. He was caught lunging with his head down on one play, which meant he was quickly shed. He was also driven into the backfield by his man on a couple of plays. He’s a rookie, so none of this is shocking.
All of these struggles are good news for Chris Kemoeatu. If several players had emerged, then Kemoeatu, who has missed the first two games with a knee injury, could possibly be looking at competition for his job, but right now, it’s hard to see anyway a healthy Kemoeatu isn’t starting against the Ravens.
With Essex’s signing, it’s highly unlikely there is room for everyone on the roster. If you count Jonathan Scott, Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert and Trai Essex as roster locks, there are probably three more roster spots available (and maybe four). At this point Tony Hills seems pretty safe as well, as right now he’s likely to start at right guard.
So that leaves three guys playing for two spots. At this point one would think that Foster has an advantage because he has starting experience, but you could make a pretty decent case that the upside of Scott (a much more mobile guard than Foster) or a rookie like Williams outweighs Foster’s experience. Pittsburgh will already have two experienced backup guards on the roster (Essex and Legursky), so it may be better off to try to develop Scott and Williams then bring back Foster just to sit on the inactive gameday roster.