Analyzing the Offensive Line: So Many Injuries, So Few Options

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.

This entry was posted in 2011 steelers, O-Line Analysis, Offensive Line, Preseason and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Hutch

    I tend to think – baring a horrific 3rd preseason game performance – the near locks for the OL are J. Scott, Kemo, Pouncey, Hills, Colon, Legursky, Gilbert, and Essex. If the Steelers keep 9 (as they usually do) that should only leave one open spot, either for a vet like Foster or for one of the young’uns like Chris Scott or Keith Williams.

    My guess is that they go with Foster, simply because he’s got a lot of in game experience for a backup (even though he probably won’t be suiting up on game day). You can sneak one or both of Williams and Scott on the PS. After all, if they’re not good enough to make the 53 for the Steelers at OL, how many teams would be willing to give up an active spot for them?

    • Anonymous

      That’s a good point about the practice squad. On the flip side, if you cut Foster nobody’s signing him either, so he sitting around by the phone. The difference is of course that Foster may be by the phone eating a dozen McRibs while the practice squad obviously practices, by the practice squad also has a limited number of slot, while the phone bank has no such limits, and is also cheaper.

      If Pouncey and Legursky both go down in a game, who hands the ball to Ben right before allowing a sack? Warren?

      • JJ Cooper

        Essex has practiced at the position before, so he’d be option No. 3. And crazy enough, I’m pretty sure I remember Willie Colon either practicing at center, or talking about practicing at center very early in his career, so he’d probably be option # 4 (although that’s only to get through that game, by the next week he’d be back at RT with a free agent signed).

        • DC in ATL

          Can anyone other than Warren long snap?   It would seem that would be a skill a young player on the on the fringe of making the squad should consider working on.

          Warren has been solid, but it sure would be nice to use that roster spot elsewhere. 

          • JJ Cooper

            That used to be the case DC, but we’ve come to the point where there’s hardly a team that doesn’t use a specialized long snapper. And actually, if you go back to the 80s-early 90s when Chuck Noll refused to have a long snapper (I’m pretty sure that Mike Webster long snapped throughout his career), there were some complaints that the Steelers lost games because they didn’t have a dedicated snapper. At this point, pretty much every team depends on a dedicated long snapper. In fact, I can’t think of a team who has someone who long snaps and starts at another position.

          • Uncle Rico

            Since Bruce Matthews retired, I don’t think anyone has pulled double duty.  The QB turned TE from Temple (Charlton), longsnapped too.  Tho I think he’ll be one of the 14 or 15 looking for work come Monday.

            “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.”

            It all starts with the basics.  Watch his stance (Gilbert is doing it too).  Tips run or pass by the depth of his outside leg.  I’m not talking shotgun on 3rd and long.  Any and every situation.  He (and Gilbert) are trying to steal that first kick step by setting that set leg deep.  And it’s screwing up their balance/COG/footwork.  Gilbert ends up with way too wide a base, and has a tendency to crossover or even get both feet off the ground at the same time trying to recover fearing the speedrush.  This makes them easy to beat with the bull or an inside move.  When it’s a run, toes of set leg is in line with heel of post leg (where it should be).  Something to watch for.  I thought Hills wasn’t as out of control/balance as Gilbert was, but both had some bad technical problems.  All starting from the stance.  Arians doesn’t need any more help tipping plays.  He does enough of that by himself.  And Ben doesn’t need any more help getting murdered.

          • GlennW

            I don’t know if it was Gilbert or Hills (or maybe both), but in the Eagles game there were several instances where our LT was taking his first drop step in pass protection so early that I thought he’d be called for a false start…

  • Robert Dewar

    Thanks to JJ for doing this unpleasant task..what a dog’s breakfast we have along the O-line.
    We’ve got J.Scott who many believe is a nice backup type as our starting LT, the enigma known as Kemo at LG who maybe the weakest link on the line, A center who upholds one of the great positional traditions in pro sports,,(Mansfield, Webster, Dawson, Hartings), a RG who is too skinny for LT and probably too tall for guard (assuming Hills wins the position over the other dregs) and a RT for whom, to be charitable, opinion is divided.

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  • ToddinSyracuse


    Thanks as always for your efforts.  Hope you are fully rested for the season.

    I keep hearing about Essex’s positional flexibility.  He has played guard, yes, but badly.  Only people that want to see him there are opposing Defensive Linemen (probably on Suggs X-mas card list).

    IMO, he is back due to LT concerns only.  If Scott and Gilbert bounce back quickly from injury, and the latter shows anything in the last two games, Essex could get cut.

    I think a couple of players are in this position as team cannot keep releasing kids with potential for the sake of vets with no upside.

    • JJ Cooper

      Watching Essex play LT tonight reminds me he’s really only a guard. His position flexibility is that if Hills starts, he’s the only backup lineman who can play LT (in some form), RT and G.

  • Mark waugh

    I reckon it needed to bring in Essex
    to be the backup guard or tackle who will likely dress on game day. Thanks dear for this segment.