Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Nov 2007

Any Given Sunday: Jets over Steelers

by Ned Macey

The Super Bowl Steelers are back! Ben Roethlisberger has recaptured the form that led them to a Super Bowl Championship in only his second season. The Steelers are the biggest threat remaining in the Patriots' quest against history. Sure, they had a minor hiccup against Arizona, but they were playing their old offensive coordinator. And the loss in Denver was, well, an emotional Sunday night contest.

That's two losses with an explanation, but what about Sunday's loss to the lowly Jets? No such easy excuse can be found, and the Steelers' struggling offensive line and special teams play are largely to blame.

At this point, the Steelers' offensive success appears to consist mostly of Ben Roethlisberger nearly getting sacked, escaping, and finding talented receivers downfield. The rest of the offense is Willie Parker running into five defenders. To the Jets' credit, they were able to take down Roethlisberger seven times and stall the Steelers offense. A couple of big plays and one impressive late drive provided just enough offense to pull out the win.

Pittsburgh's losses to Arizona and Denver were in part excusable because at least they were competent teams. Both are now 5-5 and in the playoff hunt. The Jets, meanwhile, were 1-8 with their lone victory a narrow win over the winless Dolphins. One year removed from a playoff appearance, the Jets appeared to be among the very worst teams in football. A change at quarterback generated most of the headlines over the last couple weeks, but the offense, while weak, was not the major problem. Stopping the other offense was the issue, but now the insertion of a new inside linebacker has fortified the struggling run defense.

The Steelers always want to establish the running game, and that certainly seemed like a reasonable game plan against the team that allowed the most yards per game on the ground. The Steelers ranked second in the league in rushing yards, but that total was largely inflated by the sheer number of attempts. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, which measure stats on a per-play basis, the Steelers feature a league-average rushing attack.

Still, league average is substantially better than the woeful Jets run defense was until this week. But the Jets' front seven rose up and dominated the line of scrimmage. They stacked anywhere from five to seven men within several yards of the line of scrimmage, confusing the Steelers offensive linemen. The aggressive attacking defense completely stymied the Steelers' rushing attack.

Special credit should go to rookie inside linebacker David Harris. The University of Michigan product was never truly appreciated in college and fell into the Jets' lap in the second round. Since an injury to the highly touted Jonathan Vilma, Harris has taken over and been much stronger at the point of attack. Vilma's game was to run around blockers, frequently making plays five to ten yards downfield. The Jets without Vilma still feature speedy linebacker Victor Hobson and the do-everything safety, Kerry Rhodes, so the overall team speed remains strong.

Of course, Harris also started in Week 9 when the Jets were gashed for more than 200 yards on the ground. The Jets made another important change in the bye week, featuring Shaun Ellis in an outside linebacker role. Ellis is too weak to hold up as an every-down defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, but he's big and physical for an outside linebacker, and a quality pass rusher to boot.

The Jets played Ellis mostly at defensive end on the first drive of the second half, and Pittsburgh enjoyed their most success running the ball. Otherwise, rookie free agent Mike DeVito filled in at defensive end for Ellis and has the potential to be a real credit to the Jets' scouting staff.

The Steelers were unable to consistently run the ball, and they fared worst when Parker took the ball. Parker totaled only 51 yards on 21 carries. Backup running back Najeh Davenport gained 39 yards on only eight carries. This disparity has been a year-long trend. Davenport ranks third among running backs in DVOA; Parker ranks 39th. That's a big reversal from a year ago, when Parker was the much more successful back even on a per-play basis.

The problem is that the Steelers offensive line has declined from adequate to poor. The holes that sprung Parker last season are nonexistent this year. He is understandably frustrated and trying to bounce runs to the outside. Davenport, meanwhile, is a bigger back able to move the pile while still having enough quickness to get to the corner. Make no mistake, Willie Parker is a better running back than Davenport, but in this case, the backup may be better suited for this offensive line.

This offensive line is undoubtedly struggling. Dewayne Robertson practically lived in the Steelers' backfield on both passing and rushing downs, taking full advantage of Sean Mahan at center. Marvel Smith was beaten several times on the left side of the line, and Willie Colon was not much better on the right. All told, the running game was stuffed, and Roethlisberger was sacked seven times.

The seven sacks actually do not tell the whole story. Roethlisberger, as is his pattern, eluded possibly a half-dozen more sacks. The Steelers have become too reliant on Roethlisberger's immense physical ability. To date, their strategy has been to struggle on first and second down and allow Roethlisberger to make miracles on third down. Entering the game, the Steelers were a below-average offense on first and second down but were by far the league's best offense on third down.

The ridiculous third-down efficiency is in part attributable to putting the ball in the hands of Roethlisberger, the Steelers' best player. Still, the disparity was so great and the third-down efficiency was so high that a game where third-down failures killed the offense was inevitable. Sunday was such a game; the Steelers only converted five out of 16 third downs.

The reason for the failed third downs was largely the pass rush, but the Jets also performed well in coverage. Darrelle Revis, another rookie, is certainly learning quickly on the job. Meanwhile, safety Kerry Rhodes did a good job of bracketing receivers downfield.

When the Steelers couldn't keep drives going on third down, the Jets were able to hang around. The Jets offense in regulation was basically two plays: a flea-flicker bomb to Laveranues Coles and a 41-yard pass interference on a pass intended for Jerricho Cotchery. Otherwise, the offense struggled to sustain momentum. Thomas Jones ran hard and with some success, but the offense was punting repeatedly.

The Jets forced overtime thanks to an excellent drive engineered by Kellen Clemens. The first-year starter certainly looks the part of a quarterback. He has a strong arm, moves well in the pocket, and even does the little things like play action effectively. The jury remains out on Clemens, who has been erratic at times and made several throws Sunday that could have been intercepted. To date, he is only completing 50 percent of his passes. In the final drive of regulation, however, he showed a great deal of poise working underneath sideline routes for the game-tying field goal. Clemens is definitely worth watching, although we are at least a year away from knowing how good or bad he will end up being.

The game was lost in overtime by the Steelers' true Achilles' heel: special teams. The Jets had the ball first and punted. After the Steelers stalled, they punted to Leon Washington, who busted a big return that set the Jets up for the game-winning field goal. The Steelers' coverage units have been bad all year. Their loss to Arizona was largely the result of a Steve Breaston punt return for a touchdown. Their second win over Cleveland was in doubt to the end because of Joshua Cribbs' kickoff returns. The Steelers avoided Washington on kicks throughout the game, but one returnable punt was all he needed to make an impact.

The Steelers are a flawed team, but they certainly have the talent to beat any team in football. Their defense is legitimately one of the very best in the league. Roethlisberger is capable of making plays nobody else can make, and he has two very talented receivers. To date, they have struggled offensively on the road for whatever reason. They are the fifth best offense in football at home but below average on the road. Nothing about their style of play or personnel would indicate that they are a bad road team. One possibility is that their margin of error on offense is so thin, they can fall apart under more difficult circumstances.

With two wins over the Browns, the Steelers are certainly in the driver's seat for an AFC North crown. Two questions remain: whether they can beat New England in the regular season and what sort of noise they can make in the playoffs. The Steelers have as much upside as any team not featuring Tom Brady at quarterback, but the road woes make a regular season upset unlikely. In the playoffs, they could conceivably make the AFC Championship game or get bounced in the wild card round by a team better than the Jets.

For the Jets, the struggling season allows them to gain much needed perspective. Last season's playoff run was largely a fluke caused by good luck and an easy schedule. Eric Mangini can now work on developing a defense that fits his schemes rather than forcing square-pegged veterans into round holes for the sake of winning now. The Kellen Clemens era has rightfully begun, but the David Harris era may have more of an impact on the Jets' future.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 20 Nov 2007

45 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2007, 12:34pm by Justin Zeth

Comments

1
by Mikey (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 4:27pm

Good job. This Steeler fan thinks that's a pretty fair view of the team.

One possible reason for Davenport's high DVOA is that many of his carries have come in garbage time where he's entering a game with fresh legs against a defensive front that's already slugged it out for 60-70 plays.

2
by Hank (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 4:32pm

You nailed it, but I think much of this Tomlin needs to answer for. He has largely been given a free pass and boatloads of praise. I believe he is a good coach and the kickoff strategy was a good idea. But if the team cannot get better line play, then adjustments need to be made to shore up protection. I did not see this, especially in the 2nd half.

3
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 4:35pm

Mikey:

Davenport was a pretty solid runner in Green Bay when healthy. His issues were that he couldn't stay on the field and he fumbled. Though at the end he was clearly jaking it as the team stunk and he was looking to get cut.

In the right setting I could see Najeh Davenport be a real contributor. He has legit ability.

4
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 4:35pm

*Patiently waiting for Dutch to show up and complain that Roethlisberger isn't getting enough credit*

5
by Kendall Simmons (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 4:41pm

I am terrible. I don't know why I often block no one and then fall down. But I got a nice contract extension. Take that Faneca with your actual blocking and hustle! Showoff!

6
by The Boilermaster (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 4:59pm

@5:

Ah, the ability to throw any name on a post makes this site ever better.

7
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:08pm

Am I the only one excited to see what this game does to Pittsburgh's variance?

8
by DMC (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:14pm

Willie Parker is a great back and can work the inside runs, but the offensive drive with Davenport looked so much better on Sunday.

I don't have the data to back it up, but the drive had flow and it seemed like the third downs were always short.

The Steelers offense this year is always in third and ten (or more). It's starting to remind me a lot of the Eagles with Randall Cunningham.

"Hey Randall, just run around a bit a toss the ball down the field.."

9
by Disco Stu (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:22pm

I think this game showed that the Jets have the foundation to be really, really good- like 12-4 good- next year.

10
by JMM (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:25pm

I wonder if there is a certain technique that is being used to exploit the Steelers. If so, the coaches should by now have a counter technique. Or is it the lack of talent?

11
by Mikey (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:27pm

3 -

Oh, I don't dispute that Davenport has ability. In fact I'd like to see him get more carries.

I just think that any stat that shows him to be the third most effective back in the league must be skewed by circumstances.

12
by cd6! (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 5:46pm

You could have made this article easier to write by just copying and pasting "Fire Bruce Arians" 50 times.

13
by mmm... sacrilicious (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 6:25pm

#8: I'm not sure it's legal to compare Roethlisberger with Cunningham. What about comparing him to, say, Archie Manning?

14
by Luz (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 6:25pm

very nice article. you hit the steelers weakness and strengths very well.

15
by Jared (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 6:27pm

So the reason the Steelers have a bad variance rating is because 1st and 2nd down they perform poorly then 3rd down they're world beaters.

It is neat that the Jets have one of the best VARs and Steelers one of the worst.

16
by DGL (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 7:10pm

#15: That's not exactly a good thing for the Jets. "Yeah, we suck, but we suck consistently...

17
by Cyrus (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 7:17pm

I loved this line:

"They stacked anywhere from five to seven men within several yards of the line of scrimmage, confusing the Steelers offensive linemen."

I picture confused cattle, mooing madly and getting ready to stampede off the field. I know its not what was intended, but really-- thats the image in my head.

18
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 8:40pm

9: I really, really agree.

Here's my list of struggling teams due for a rebound next year:
1. New York Jets (2-8)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (3-7)
3. St Louis Rams (2-8)

On the other side, here's my list of teams that are doing well but will probably regress:
1. Detroit (6-4)
2. Jacksonville (7-3)
3. Tampa Bay (6-4)

19
by johnt (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 8:59pm

This article is good, but misses another key flaw of the Steelers: they cannot use the short passing game to burn teams for blitzing. I don't know whether Roethlisburger just isn't good at Tom Brady style dink-and-dunk or whether Bruce Arians just doesn't call it, but they never use short passing to make teams back off on first and second down. Instead they run for 1 yard on both downs and then call a deep pass route on third and hope Roethlisburger somehow runs around like a headless chicken until someone gets open.

20
by Easy Like Sunday Morning (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 9:03pm

Good analysis. I like Najeh and think he should get some more carries. While he's big, he is not a power back, though. So the idea that he "able to move the pile" is wrong, unless of course if you are talking about in a hamper.

21
by Christina (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 9:16pm

I don't follow the Steelers very much, but have they had much by way of personnel changes on the line? If not, then I think this speaks highly of Russ Grimm, who left with Whisenhunt. This article mentions the Steelers offensive line struggles, and I seem to recall seeing mentioned on this site about how the Cardinals line is so much better than last year. I wonder how much better the Steelers would be doing if they had managed to hold on to him.

22
by bigmaq (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 9:55pm

To paraphrase the 3 axioms in real estate: "location, location, location" it's "O-Line, O-Line, O-Line". The description of the Steelers one-trick offense was nailed.

One small aside, in spite of the low score by the Jets, this was the most abysmal display of tackling I have ever seen of a modern era Steelers team. It was truly embarrassing - they seemed to be channeling their inner Seattle Seahawks. Jones had to have gained 60 of his 117 yards after first contact.

23
by Jerry (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2007 - 11:47pm

Re #21:

Two changes: Jeff Hartings retired at center and has been replaced by ex-Buc Sean Mahan, and Willie Colon beat out Max Starks at right tackle. Both linemen were mentioned negatively in Ned's piece.

24
by Paul (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:46am

I'd like to mirror all that was said about the O-line. Plus offensive play-calling was offensive. As mentioned before, there never seemed to be an outlet for Roethlisberger to dump it to when he was under pressure, which was often. If he managed to escape the pocket, he was looking 20-50 yards downfield to throw every time. He even had a guy about 20 yards downfield with the defender trailing him by about 3-5 yards, but instead threw it in double coverage to Holmes about 40 yards downfield.
Plus on that stalled drive in overtime, 3rd and 17, and they run a draw. Sometimes they work, but by this point, teams have to be ready for it against the Steelers. STOP RUNNING THE DRAW on 3rd and long. I'd be happier with an 8 yard crossing route to Ward if Holmes was covered downfield. I'd think that might have a better chance of getting 17.
On the other side of the ball, the D-line is not doing much better. And tackling was horrendous. It looks like Harrison is the only one who tries to wrap the ball carrier and even he looked to be going for the hit sometimes.

25
by Tom Moore (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 3:45am

19: Bruce Arians is a firm believer in attacking downfield at all costs, but with protection. I didn't see the game, but if the Jets were playing a bunch of zone blitzes, then you should read an article Bruce wrote about attacking zone blitzes with max protection. Moreover, I do believe it has something to do with Roethlisberger being able to throw a good deep ball, and not wanting to settle for 5 yard gains when Arians thinks 50 can be had.

26
by DrObviousSo (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 3:49am

My observation of the Steelers this year is that their offensive strategy is sound, but their play calling needs help. I can watch a game, and call pass or play with about 66% accuracy after seeing the formation.

The O-Line, well, it just stinks. It needs work. It's a personnel problem, from what I can see.

"Roethlisberger is capable of making plays nobody else can make, and he has two very talented receivers."
So who's not talented, Ward, Holmes, or Miller?

27
by ygold (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 4:49am

As a J-E-T-S fan it's great to read about them on FO, even if it is only during cosmic anomolies such as last Sunday.

The analysis of the Jets defense was excellent. Harris has been a real difference maker, and Hobson has looked better since Harris became a starter. Ellis has really been invisible since Mangini became coach until this game, and I'd like to see more of him a OLB, though I'm not sure about his coverage skills.

The article was a little short on analysis regarding one of the most surprising aspects of the game- Jones' ability to run effectively. I don't think it can all be blamed on bad tackling, because unlike too many Jets games, there were actually running lanes. Even in the Steelers-Ravens game McGahee seemed to have some success running the ball. Are there some fundamental flaws in their rushing defense that are starting to be exposed?

No. 9- I agree that the Jets have the potential for a much improved record next year, but 12-4? Lay off that Meadowlands Grass. And even if they did it would only get them the number 5 seed in the playoffs.

28
by Michael (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 7:25am

26:
Ha, ha. I think Miller is not included in the equation, since he is a tight end. Also, since they were keeping him in blocking a lot during that game, and only sending 2 receivers out, as I believe it said in the article, then his receiving skills were not often a factor.

In the Jets game they threw to Miller twice, and he caught both for receptions in the 15-17 yard range.

29
by BruceNH (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 10:14am

As a Pats fan, I didn't get to see this game so this analysis is very informative since the Pats will see both teams this year. Question for Jets fans, I agree with the comment that Mangini is trying to fit 4-3 players into a 3-4 system. Vince Wilfork has said on radio that he finally became a better nose tackle when he lined up a step off the center istead of right on top of him. Does Robinson line up right over center? Is he hopeless as a traditional nose tackle? Without a good nose tackle, the 3-4 can be easily gashed by inside runs.

30
by DGL (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 11:49am

#21, #23: The O-line pretty much stunk last year under Grimm, too (22nd in ALY and 22nd in ASR -- the only good FO stat for the line was "10+", and I'd attribute that as much to downfield blocking by WRs and TEs as to the line reaching the second level). It's a personnel issue at least as much as a coaching issue.

31
by Cyrus (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:12pm

RE: 22

Of course, if you paraphrase Stephen Colbert, it becomes "Location, Location, BEES!"

32
by Ben (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:22pm

#19

Several times over the season the TV announcers have indicated that Ben was trying to hit his hot read in the face of a blitz but the hot receiver didn't realize it was a blitz or didn't realize he was the hot and thus ran the wrong route. Also Spaeth has been worthless against the big blitz as a protector and as a receiver.

Lastly, when it's 3rd and 12 and the hot route is a 6 yard slant, I think Ben may be trying to take his chances with something that could get his team a first down.

33
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:26pm

This article is good, but misses another key flaw of the Steelers: they cannot use the short passing game to burn teams for blitzing. I don’t know whether Roethlisburger just isn’t good at Tom Brady style dink-and-dunk or whether Bruce Arians just doesn’t call it, but they never use short passing to make teams back off on first and second down.

It's because Roethlisberger can't throw short passes. It's a mental block for him--do you remember the play in the Super Bowl where he had a receiver wide open in the end zone about eight yards in front of himself, and he lobbed it horribly short directly to a defender for the interception? That's what it's like with Roethlisberger--he can't throw short passes. Screens, slants, hooks--he throws them all over the place. His mid-to-long range accuracy, on the other hand, is remarkable.

The Steelers' flaws are exactly the same flaws they've always had. Their offensive line has always been horrendously awful at pass blocking; it's just that Roethlisberger masks those deficiencies a great deal. The Steelers systematically select linemen based on run-blocking ability and completely ignore pass blocking. Kendall Simmons, someone asked about: Kendall Simmons is completely hopeless as a pass blocker, even for a guard, but he's a very good run blocker, and that's why the Steelers extended him.

This year, Faneca either has gotten old and lost a step or is moping around over his contract, and Marvel Smith, who like Simmons was always a good run blocker but bad pass blocker, has also lost a step. That and the loss of Hartings means the Steelers' oline has dropped from really bad to worse in the NFL at pass blocking, and from really good to below-average at run blocking.

This is a very, very serious problem that absolutely must be addressed immediately. The Steelers have a franchise quarterback and stand to waste the rest of his prime if they can't protect him. Roethlisberger is not the most durable guy around, and it's a miracle he's started every game so far. He's going to get hurt. He gets hit more than any QB in the league.

The Steelers' loss to the Jets shows their fundamental, fatal flaw that will ensure their doom in the postseason. Look at their roster:

QB: One of the best in the league.
RBs: Above average.
WRs: Above average.
TEs: Among the best in the league.
OL: The worst in the league.
DL: Very good.
LB: Very good.
CB: Average.
S: Good.
K: Excellent.
P: Excellent.
ST coverage: Among the worst ever fielded in the NFL.

That's another longtime issue. Ask any Steelers fan: The Steelers have always completely ignored kick/punt coverage units, and they've always been bad at it. I don't have this week's numbers, but as of last week, Jeff Reed ranked #1 in the league in DVOA FG/XP value, while Daniel Sepulveda ranks well among punters. Despite this, the Steelers were 27th in the league in special teams. They're that bad.

The Jets won because Eric Mangini is a smart coach who learned from the very best when it comes to breaking down field and gameplanning, and the Steelers are a great team with two glaring, obvious weaknesses. Mangini mercilessly exploited them, and Mike Tomlin has given me no reason to believe he's any kind of strategist at all. The Steelers have been badly outcoached by inferior teams in all three of their losses.

If the Steelers run into the Jaguars in the playoffs, they'll get murdered--rushing the passer and returning kicks are two things the Jaguars are very good at--and if they run into Jeff Fisher's Flaming Thumbtacks, they'll lose that game too, because Fisher has a great defense and smart enough to exploit the Steelers' weaknesses.

34
by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 12:48pm

#29 - I'm guessing you mean Robertson, in which case the problem is that he's simply not big enough or strong enough to be a 3-4 nose tackle. Technique has nothing to do with it.

As for the Russ Grimm question, I'm of the opinion that he's one of the most over-rated coaches in football. The Steelers haven't had a line that rated as above average in both ASR and ALY since 2001, Grimm's first year in the job. 2001 and 2002 were the only years of his tenure in which their pass blocking was above average, and it wasn't much above average. Nor was the run-blocking exceptional outside of 2001 (when it was still slightly worse than the year before) and 2004. For much of this time, the personnel were significantly better than the current "aging Alen Faneca and four scrubs" situation. I'm much happier with calling this year's Cardinals line (which had, in any case, shown great improvement by the end of last season) a fluke than I am with calling Grimm a good coach.

35
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 2:02pm

"For much of this time, the personnel were significantly better than the current “aging Alen Faneca and four scrubs� situation."

Actually, Kendall Simmons and Marvel Smith have both been around most of the back through Russ Grimm's time, in addition to Faneca. Jeff Hartings is the big difference; center is an underrated and underemphasized position these days.

Grimm doesn't have much to do with it. It's systematic and intentional for the Steelers to ignore pass blocking and focus solely on run blocking when selecting offensive linemen.

36
by Josh (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 2:34pm

How did the Steelers O do so well in '04 or '05? Was that a personnel or a coaching issue?

Also, how did the Steelers D give up 100yds rushing to Jones? Was it tackling or is there a fundamental flaw in the 34 Zone Blitz? unless the Jets ran a lot of draws and screens.

Also, how good is the Jets Oline?

37
by bengt (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 2:57pm

#27: Incidentally the Steelers already knew this prior to the game (or at least their head coach said so in his press conference):"Defensively, they’re a very young football team, but they’ve got some talented players leading them. David Harris at inside linebacker has stepped in and done a heckuva job since (Jonathan) Vilma has gone down. He’s a guy that we knew a lot about in the draft and had a lot of respect for. He’s a thumper. He’s got a bunch of tackles. He can find the ball, he’s an instinct player. He’s very physical. We’ve got to be prepared to deal with him."

38
by Mark from Pittsburgh (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 4:17pm

With Faneca gone next year, what solutions are there for the Steelers O-line?

Is Kemoeatu ready? How many O-liners can you get through the draft and expect them to make an impact that season? Are there any likely prospects in free agency?

Much as I like Faneca, I think if you're paying crazy money it should be for a great left tackle, not a guard.

Is there anyone on the line they should keep (including Faneca at the price he'll want)?

39
by Jeesh! (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 4:36pm

The Jets offensive line is just that.
Offensive.

A couple no-name guys, couple rookies, they lost Pete Kendall and Ferguson is still learning.

40
by Geo B (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 5:21pm

Great article. 33 - great followup. I also question some play calling, especially the 3rd and 2 pass play late in the game that got killed. Davenport has been incredible picking up 3rd downs, the Steelers should have brought Starks in as the 3rd tight end and power rushed. The Steelers have also cut some dedicated special teams guys that they are really missing on coverage now. It's painful to see how bad this O-line is getting. My only question is do they make a mistake letting Faneca get away or are they better to spend high draft picks on O-line, they really need the help (instead of drafting two linebackers this year).

41
by billvv (not verified) :: Wed, 11/21/2007 - 6:02pm

Nothing in this article or the comments that follow accounts for the three red zone defenses put up by the Jets. As bad as the Jets have been up to now, those results can only be explained by the bye week and the work done on the defensive schemes. Great work by the coaches if this is repeated with the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

42
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Thu, 11/22/2007 - 3:00am

Other assorted items from the comments:

[b]How did the Steelers O do so well in ‘04 or ‘05? Was that a personnel or a coaching issue?[/b]

Ben Roethlisberger showed up. The storylines that the young QB was dragged along by his great team those years is preposterous; the Steelers won and won big because Roethlisberger was just that good. The oline then was merely below-average overall; it wasn't until last year that it fell to bad, and this year it crumbled to atrocious.

[b]Is Kemoeatu ready?[/b]

Kemoeatu is a Kendall Simmons clone, and another example of the Steelers o-line philosophy. He's a run-game mauler who lasted deep into the draft because he wasn't any good at pass blocking, even in college. Terrible technique. We haven't seen enough of him in the NFL to know whether he's improved at it, but judging from the facts that (1) The Steelers don't emphasize pass blocking at all and (2) Kemoeatu isn't playing yet, despite his excellent run-blocking skills, I'd say he most likely has not. He's part of the problem, not part of the solution.

[b]With Faneca gone next year, what solutions are there for the Steelers O-line?

Is Kemoeatu ready? How many O-liners can you get through the draft and expect them to make an impact that season? Are there any likely prospects in free agency?[/b]

The Steelers o-line needs to be completely reconstructed. There are zero players on it that the Steelers should be interested in keeping. They need to look to the draft and to free agency specifically for offensive linemen. The rest of the team is already in place for a championship line. Pittsburgh MUST get a new o-line.

[b]My only question is do they make a mistake letting Faneca get away or are they better to spend high draft picks on O-line, they really need the help (instead of drafting two linebackers this year).[/b]

Alan Faneca was never an especially good pass blocker, either, and at this stage he's substantially below average at it (again, it COULD just be because he's half-assing it, not because he's aging, but why half-ass it in a walk year?). He was a devastating run blocker and competent pass blocker who now has faded to good run blocker and bad pass blocker. Whoever signs him is probably making a mistake.

Pittsburgh re-signing him is out of the question. Their cap situation is still not great, and Roethlisberger is probably going to need an $80 million extension this offseason. This team is strapped and will have no money to improve in free agency.

This is their big problem: After they re-sign Roethlisberger, it's going to be two more years before they have the cap space to seek free agent improvements to their line, and draft picks won't develop quickly enough to help now, either. But by two years from now, what's their defense going to look like? Casey Hampton will be aging and/or gone by then, ditto James Farrior, probably ditto Aaron Smith.

The Steelers are a franchise in the midst of an identity shift. As currently constructed, this is a team that needs to move toward being offense-oriented, in particular passing-oriented, building around its franchise quarterback to shoot for top-3 offenses and merely top-10 defenses.

But more than any team in the league, the Steelers are, organizationally, going to resist that identity shift. From ownership all the way down, everyone's bought into the idea of Steeler Footballâ„¢, and that doesn't involve revolving your franchise around your quarterback.

Unfortunately for the Cult of the Steeler Way, the modern NFL, unlike the 1970s NFL, revolves around the franchise quarterback. The Steelers have one, and because of their organizational stubbornness (or, if you want to be kind to them, "commitment"), are right on the brink of wasting him.

And if I were Ben Roethlisberger, I would be diplomatic but (behind closed front office doors) vocal about the fact that if the Steelers don't focus on getting o-line help and generally shift toward the passing attack, I'm not signing an extension and I'm walking away when my contract expires after the 2008 season. The man's career should not be wasted like this.

43
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Thu, 11/22/2007 - 3:01am

Sorry about the mangled [b] tags that should be HTML. I'm going to re-post that, and if some moderator happens by, please delete the previous post...

Other assorted items from the comments:

How did the Steelers O do so well in ‘04 or ‘05? Was that a personnel or a coaching issue?

Ben Roethlisberger showed up. The storylines that the young QB was dragged along by his great team those years is preposterous; the Steelers won and won big because Roethlisberger was just that good. The oline then was merely below-average overall; it wasn't until last year that it fell to bad, and this year it crumbled to atrocious.

Is Kemoeatu ready?

Kemoeatu is a Kendall Simmons clone, and another example of the Steelers o-line philosophy. He's a run-game mauler who lasted deep into the draft because he wasn't any good at pass blocking, even in college. Terrible technique. We haven't seen enough of him in the NFL to know whether he's improved at it, but judging from the facts that (1) The Steelers don't emphasize pass blocking at all and (2) Kemoeatu isn't playing yet, despite his excellent run-blocking skills, I'd say he most likely has not. He's part of the problem, not part of the solution.

With Faneca gone next year, what solutions are there for the Steelers O-line?

Is Kemoeatu ready? How many O-liners can you get through the draft and expect them to make an impact that season? Are there any likely prospects in free agency?

The Steelers o-line needs to be completely reconstructed. There are zero players on it that the Steelers should be interested in keeping. They need to look to the draft and to free agency specifically for offensive linemen. The rest of the team is already in place for a championship line. Pittsburgh MUST get a new o-line.

My only question is do they make a mistake letting Faneca get away or are they better to spend high draft picks on O-line, they really need the help (instead of drafting two linebackers this year).

Alan Faneca was never an especially good pass blocker, either, and at this stage he's substantially below average at it (again, it COULD just be because he's half-assing it, not because he's aging, but why half-ass it in a walk year?). He was a devastating run blocker and competent pass blocker who now has faded to good run blocker and bad pass blocker. Whoever signs him is probably making a mistake.

Pittsburgh re-signing him is out of the question. Their cap situation is still not great, and Roethlisberger is probably going to need an $80 million extension this offseason. This team is strapped and will have no money to improve in free agency.

This is their big problem: After they re-sign Roethlisberger, it's going to be two more years before they have the cap space to seek free agent improvements to their line, and draft picks won't develop quickly enough to help now, either. But by two years from now, what's their defense going to look like? Casey Hampton will be aging and/or gone by then, ditto James Farrior, probably ditto Aaron Smith.

The Steelers are a franchise in the midst of an identity shift. As currently constructed, this is a team that needs to move toward being offense-oriented, in particular passing-oriented, building around its franchise quarterback to shoot for top-3 offenses and merely top-10 defenses.

But more than any team in the league, the Steelers are, organizationally, going to resist that identity shift. From ownership all the way down, everyone's bought into the idea of Steeler Footballâ„¢, and that doesn't involve revolving your franchise around your quarterback.

Unfortunately for the Cult of the Steeler Way, the modern NFL, unlike the 1970s NFL, revolves around the franchise quarterback. The Steelers have one, and because of their organizational stubbornness (or, if you want to be kind to them, "commitment"), are right on the brink of wasting him.

And if I were Ben Roethlisberger, I would be diplomatic but (behind closed front office doors) vocal about the fact that if the Steelers don't focus on getting o-line help and generally shift toward the passing attack, I'm not signing an extension and I'm walking away when my contract expires after the 2008 season. The man's career should not be wasted like this.

44
by Scott (not verified) :: Thu, 11/22/2007 - 6:24am

(Note: I'm a Steeler fan that's followed the team for years)

The 07 Steelers are a good team, possibly even a great one. But they have major flaws, schematically and personnel and it feels weird to say this for a team that's been, at worst, the 3rd best franchise this decade in the NFL w/Indy and New England.

The offensive line is one of the worst in the league
- The Steelers of 04-05 got by on very good run blocking, but pass protection was below average and Ben Roethlisberger just did an amazing job making them look good. They would have Texans-esque sack numbers if he wasn't so good at shaking off sacks. Then in 2006 he got the string of injuries that plagued his health, decision making and scrambling ability. Suddenly the o-line looked poor all over. OL Coach Russ Grimm leaves for Arizona. Jeff Hartings retires, he's replaced with a scrub like Sean Mahan, and Faneca's whining about his contract and not playing that great anymore. Hence poor offensive line play all around, and Roethlisberger/Parker have had to deal with it all year. For whatever reason, the line plays much worse on the road too. With Faneca leaving town, they better hit the draft/FA hard if they can on the OL, or they will waste the talent they have.

Willie Parker is one-dimensional and shouldn't be a long-term option
- This guy wasn't getting playing time at North Carolina for a reason. All he has is great speed. To use it, he needs great blocking. He's terribly inconsistent. He can't create on his own, he's a horrible pass blocker, and he's not much of a receiver. He hits the line up the middle and it's a waste of a play. His limitations are obvious. I think if Davenport had as many carries this year, he'd post better numbers than Parker has. I'm glad DVOA/DPAR show how awful Parker has been this year.

The Steelers have changed coaches, but sadly the mantra of "run the football" has stuck just the same and the coaches actually think they need to rely on Parker more than their franchise QB. It's sad really. All the talent at receiver and the QB, and we're calling running plays to our one-trick pony RB on every 1st and 2nd down.

The vertical passing game doesn't work well with poor pass protection
- It worked well enough 04-05 because those guys at least blocked people, but the last two years has seen countless big shots on the QB as he is always looking for people so far down the field that he has no option but to eat the ball or risk an INT. Where are the outlet receivers? Where are the screens to a RB that's supposed to be so fast? The Steelers would work much better if they actually came out with 4 WR on 1st down and leave Ben an option short if the deep guys aren't open. Instead they run, run and get into shotgun on 3rd down, when the defense knows what's coming, and he seems to always have to move around to make the play. They need to design better plays. Just look at what the Patriots are doing (and have done for years now). Brady always has the short option available.

The defense can't get any pass rush without blitzing a lot
- Call it a problem with the 3-4 if you want, but this team gets no pressure when they only rush a couple guys. And many times when they do send those "exotic" blitzes, they are picked up, and the team's average CB's are exploited with ease. If you saw the Cleveland game, Derek Anderson had all day to throw the ball. Fortunately he made a lot of poor throws/decisions. What do you think Brady's going to do to this defense when he's getting his usual 4+ seconds of protection? They'll score 42. The DL generates nothing and the only LB worth a damn at getting to the QB this year is James Harrison. Meanwhile you spend your first two draft picks on Lawrence Timmons and Woodley and they have made practically no contribution to this team. I just don't get that draft, but that's another topic.

This defense has a lot of #1 rankings this year, but they don't look any better than the Steeler defenses of 01, 04 and 05 to me. Also Troy Polamalu is one of the most overrated defensive players in the game. He's missed a ton of tackles this year and has almost no big plays. He gets himself out of position all the time, and this isn't a problem that started this year. He's been burned a lot in the past and I really don't think his freelancing style is a good thing for this team. I'd rather have Ed Reed or Bob Sanders any day.

The special teams are awful (this isn't breaking news)

I refuse to believe people like Sean Morey and Chidi Iwuoma make a big difference on ST's. The coverage teams have been awful for years and have burned this team in the postseason many times. I can almost bet that will happen this year (assuming the inevitable playoff loss is even a close game) since they seem to even be worse at coverage. And their return game is nothing to gloat about. Allen Rossum had a nice TD against the 49ers. Other than that he's done nothing. Willie Reid was supposed to be the Devin Hester type for this team, and last time I checked he barely made the roster and has done nothing. Great 3rd round pick there, almost as great as Matt "can't block to save my life" Spaeth.

Guys like Roethlisberger, Holmes and Miller look like they can be elite players at their position for years to come, but their potential is going to be wasted by a team that can't field an acceptable NFL o-line and learn how to get the most out of what you have instead of forcing this tired "we're going to run, run, run" crap down everyone's throats.

/End of rant/

45
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Thu, 11/22/2007 - 12:34pm

A few extra points building off your post, Scott...

I slightly disagree about Willie Parker. Parker bulked up a little bit, and traded off a little bit of speed to do it. Probably the Steelers directed him to do so because they believed he couldn't handle the workload as an every down RB at his 2005 size. This was a bad mistake. Parker was the fastest RB in the league in 2005; now he's merely fast, and the extra bulk doesn't really help him. The Steelers would have been much better off keeping him his natural size and using him and Davenport together.

The defense actually doesn't blitz *that* much, defining a blitz as more than four defenders coming after the quarterback. I don't have a problem with their way of attacking the QB; the weakness in their defense is their coverage schemes, which are designed to prevent the big play above all else, and thus they allow opponents to make 10-15 yard completions over the middle all day long if they want to.

That's what happened against Cleveland. Why? Because Cleveland's offensive line is really freaking good. And the book on the Steelers defense has always been that if you can pick up their pass rush, someone is always open in the 10-15 yard range.

Also Troy Polamalu is one of the most overrated defensive players in the game. He’s missed a ton of tackles this year and has almost no big plays. He gets himself out of position all the time, and this isn’t a problem that started this year. He’s been burned a lot in the past and I really don’t think his freelancing style is a good thing for this team. I’d rather have Ed Reed or Bob Sanders any day.

I somewhat agree. Polamalu is overrated, but he's still useful and one of the better players on the Steelers defense. Offenses tend to stay away from him, and that has value. Polamalu's biggest weakness is something he shares with the entire defense: He bites hard on virtually any play fake or misdirection. I'm always amazed teams don't run flea flickers, fake end arounds, and stuff like that against the Steelers. They would work. I've seen play fakes on 3rd and 11 work against the Steelers. If you think Polamalu's coming after you, audible to a play fake! Polamalu will always bite, even on 4th and 26. He can't help himself.

Guys like Roethlisberger, Holmes and Miller look like they can be elite players at their position for years to come

I criticized Holmes' selection in 2006, but he's proven me wrong. That said, Holmes is good, but unlikely to ever be elite. Why? Not because he drops passes. Terrell Owens drops passes too, always has. Unlike the great receivers--unlike Terrell Owens and Good Randy Moss and even Larry Fitzgerald and Rod Smith--I've yet to see Santonio Holmes really fight for the football. He's good at getting open, or at least open enough for Roethlisberger, and getting deep, but if he's covered, he won't fight off a defender to get the football. Holmes is good, but when Hines Ward is gone and Holmes is their best receiver, the Steelers may have a problem.

As for the other two guys: Roethlisberger is already an elite quarterback, top-five in the league. And Heath Miller might be the best tight end in the NFL not named Antonio Gates. He's the league's best-kept secret.