Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Dec 2010
by Ben Muth
When I decided to dump the Cowboys for the Steelers as one of the three teams covered by this column, I looked forward to seeing a team that runs a lot of Power. Unfortunately, there had been a schematic shift in Pittsburgh, and they were now focusing on more zone running plays. Then this week against the Jets, the Steelers went back to their roots and a Power-based running game.
I call any play with the front-side blocking scheme and at least one puller a version of Power. That's because whenever you're installing these plays, the coach will say "Power blocking except for ..." and go into the few exceptions for that particular play. The Steelers' use of Power was effective -- Rashard Mendenhall broke the 100-yard mark and the Steelers controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game. The physical play also seemed to take the legs out of the Jets pass rush. As a result, the Steelers pass-protected better than they had in weeks, which isn't saying much, but I'm sure Ben Roethlisberger will take any improvement he can get.
Even though the Steelers ran a smash-mouth play for the majority of the day, they ran it in a finesse way. Pittsburgh ran Power primarily in single-back shotgun sets. It isn't the play that Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca ran to death earlier in the decade, but it is a version that better suits the team's current personnel. By using three wide receivers and a shotgun formation, the Steelers were able to spread the Jets out and create some air between the tackles. The play was incredibly successful all game for Pittsburgh, with one notable exception of course (to be discussed later).
The coolest version of the Power play that Pittsburgh ran was actually a weakside, counter version of the play (Figure 1). The running back lined up on the right side of Roethlisberger, took a couple steps to the left then cut back to the right side. It was neat because it was unusual. It's rare that a shotgun run is designed to go to the side the back is lined up on. It's also rare to see a weakside Power, especially out of the gun. The creative scheme worked and caught the Jets off guard for an 11-yard gain.
On any weakside Power play, the play-side tackle has an option. He releases inside and reads the defensive end. If the end slants or is playing inside, the tackle has to gather him up and block him. If the defensive end is playing outside, he lets the end go and continues inside for a linebacker.
On this play, Jason Taylor was kind of slow, not giving Flozell Adams a clear read one way or the other. Adams decided to force his hand by clubbing him with his outside arm and trying to drag Taylor inside with him. It was a nice veteran play to take the down lineman. Whenever you are in doubt (on any running play really), you should stay on the down lineman and make the linebackers make the plays. Adams doesn't put a dominating block on Taylor, but he gets enough of him to get the play started.
|Figure 1: Counter Power|
Ramon Foster has a much simpler job. Foster doesn't have to make any reads, he just has to fire out and block the defensive tackle shaded to his inside. Of course simple doesn't necessarily mean easy. At the snap, Shaun Ellis slanted across the guard's face and into the backfield. Luckily for Foster, his fellow guard Chris Kemoeatu was alert and able to chip Ellis on his way to blocking Bart Scott. Even though everything worked out, it was the kind of mistake that Pittsburgh's offensive line has made too many times this year, and the kind of mistake that would catch up with them later in the game (foreshadowing).
Speaking of Pittsburgh's left guard, I've been critical of Kemoeatu often this year -- and with good reason. He has struggled in all phases of the game -- well, just run blocking and pass blocking, but that's a pretty comprehensive list of o-line tasks. However, I thought he really shined in this game. He was a puller on Power, and this seems to be something at which he excels. Here, Kemoeatu was able to pull around and chip Ellis just enough to knock him off balance. Not only that, but the big fella was able to keep moving and help get a block on Bart Scott. It was a superior effort by a player that has struggled a lot this year. It's also a good example of how schemes can highlight a player's strengths.
The Steelers also pulled Matt Spaeth on the play. Kemoeatu might have gotten a piece of Scott to secure the edge for Mendenhall, but Spaeth was the man that buried him in the ground. You never want to lose two blockers to one linebacker, but if it leads to a pancake on the edge, you can live with it. The rest of the play is usually uneventful. The center blocks back on the first down lineman on the backside of the play. The backside tackle does something called punch and peel: He steps down and ensures that no one is shooting a gap before peeling back out to handle any potential edge rushers. These two blocks are easy and rarely does anything go wrong on the backside of Power (more foreshadowing).
Of course, anyone who watched this game knows that the Steelers gave up a safety in the fourth quarter on the shotgun Power play (Figure 2). The safety increased the Jets' lead to five points and ended up being the biggest play in the game. You may be able to guess that the safety was the result of a slanting defensive lineman on the backside of the play. Jonathan Scott was benched after the play and didn't come out for the final drive. While I certainly don't have a problem with benching Scott, to do so because of this play is a little unfair.
|Figure 2: Steelers' Safety|
Jason Taylor was lined up in a three-technique over the left guard. He slanted inside at the snap and split Scott and Maurkice Pouncey for the safety. As I explained earlier, it's the backside offensive tackle's job to punch and peel. In this case, it means he has to step down inside and stop the three-technique's initial charge before coming back out and handling any edge rushers. Scott failed spectacularly in this task and ended the play face down in the turf. But in his defense, Taylor slanted hard inside, and it's tough for a tackle to get a big piece of a three-technique who is slanting.
Maurkice Pouncey's responsibility on this play is to chip the nose tackle on his way back to blocking the three-technique. It's his job to give the play-side guard as much help as possible before taking care of his man. The problem is that Pouncey gets too involved with the nose tackle and doesn't realize Taylor is slanting until it is too late.
I'm not saying it was Pouncey's fault, because Scott certainly deserves to share the blame, but Pouncey's error was greater than Scott's. Last time I wrote about the Steelers, I talked about how tough it is to beat good teams with an inconsistent offensive line. This game was an example of why. Despite playing one of their better games as a unit, the o-line broke down at the worst possible time and cost the Steelers two points and the ball.
I wanted to close this week's column with a special Christmas treat, a breakdown of a special teams play. As an offensive lineman, I didn't sit in a lot of special teams meetings in my day, but I think I learned enough to break down Dan Connolly's excellent kickoff return. The first thing that jumped out at me was that the Packers had done their homework.
Mike McCarthy called a squib kick in an effort to give his team time to cover against the ace return man Connolly. Unfortunately for McCarthy, Connolly appears to be an experienced beer league softball shortstop. The big man moves to his right and fields the ground ball with ease, showing more range than Derek Jeter has in years. In fact, were it not for the Red Sox already having stud shortstop Jed Lowrie (Stanford), Connolly could be the next Bo Jackson-style of two-sport star.
Once Connolly fields the ball, Lambeau nation can only watch in a mix of awe and horror as Gale Sayers 2.0 does his thing. Connolly cradles the ball with two hands and lumbers forward toward the wedge looking like every offensive lineman who has ever found a football. But this is all a ruse: As soon as he gets to wedge, he cuts back across the field into open space. Now it's time to turn on the jets and separate, which is exactly what happens (seriously, it looks like he's gaining on Packers back John Kuhn).
But unlike most return men (bums like Hester and Jackson come to mind), Connolly isn't all speed. The big fella has the power of Earl Campbell and shrugs off a "tackler" without even breaking stride. It's around this point in the replay where Chris Collinsworth (who never had a 71-yard kickoff return, mind you) laughs hysterically as he points out that my man Conolly is carrying the ball like a loaf of bread.
Well, when you are as elusive as Connolly, you can sacrifice a little ball security. Walter Payton didn't always tuck the ball away either because he knew no one could get a clean shot on him. Connolly clearly falls into this camp. Leave "high and tight" and "five points of pressure" to amateur ball carriers like Tiki Barber. After all as Kenny Powers once said, "Fundamentals are the crutch of the talentless."
Eventually Connolly uses his experience as a lineman by setting up a block on the kicker perfectly with a cutback. And by "block" on the kicker, I do mean an obvious, deliberate, illegal block in the back. But can you blame the ref for missing what happens to a kicker when he's in the presence of 300-pound, two-legged gazelle? Not just any gazelle either, but a teammate conscious gazelle. You see, it's pretty obvious that Connolly can score on this play, but he knows his teammate is in an MVP race and could use a touchdown pass. So the guard gracefully allows himself to be tackled so that Tom Terrific can pad his stats. Those are the kinds of things that just don't show up in the stat book (well, except for the touchdown pass).
Finally, I just wanted to note something seriously. Connolly stays in the game after the return. It may not seem like much, but how often do you see a skill player go for 71 yards and stay in the game? Seriously, when was the last time someone had a 71-yard catch or run, and didn't come out for at least next play? It's a testament to the fact that most offensive linemen are in much better physical condition than anyone gives them credit for.
11 comments, Last at 23 Dec 2010, 8:52pm by Theo