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10 Feb 2011

Word of Muth: Last Game, Best Game

by Ben Muth

It has always been my experience that the biggest game a team plays will be a microcosm of the entire season. Your star players make the key plays to keep you alive. Your biggest weakness becomes magnified under the intense pressure. And whether or not you win or lose, you can ultimately point to the outcome as obvious based on what has happened throughout the year. This is not the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Nothing about the Super Bowl represented Pittsburgh's season as a whole. The Steelers' No. 1 ranked defense couldn't get stops or turnovers. Their star quarterback missed open receivers and failed to deliver late. Their worst unit, their offensive line, played the best game of anyone. And most importantly, the Steelers lost. The Steelers didn't do that very often this year.

This game completely debunks the theory that these big games represent the season as a whole. Unless you look at it from the Packers point of view: They didn't even try to run the ball, they overcame a bunch of injuries, their defense forced turnovers, and they could always fall back on Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. I guess the theory only holds true for winners.

But this column isn't about the Packers, it's about the Steelers offensive line. I thought they played great football. They played against one of the best defenses in the NFL and gave up one coverage sack. They averaged 5.5 yards a carry on the ground. If someone would have released a photo journal of me watching the Super Bowl (which is a guaranteed best seller) it would be called Shock and Awe. I was shocked they played so well, and a little in awe of how a much maligned and hurting group pulled together for an incredible performance. This game was the high-cholesterol equivalent of Timmy Smith going for 200 yards against the Broncos in a Super Bowl.

I think Doug Legursky needs to be commended for his performance on Sunday. A lot of the talk going into the game was about the loss of Maurkice Pouncey, and how that would lead to a big game for B.J. Raji. That was obviously not the case. Legursky did a great a job of not only sustaining his blocks, but also sustaining them on the line of scrimmage. The latter is the key part -- by limiting penetration, the line allowed the running backs to cut back a couple of times for big runs.

But when you play center, actually blocking people is only about half the job. You are also responsible for sending your fellow blockers in the right directions. It certainly seemed like Pittsburgh's line was on the same page all evening. The only time I can remember a truly free rusher was when Ramon Foster failed to see Sam Shields on a B gap blitz in the middle of the fourth quarter. That wasn't Legursky's fault though, as Foster was heading in the right direction before a linebacker caught his eye and brought him needlessly inside. Other than that small hiccup, the Steelers were in position all night.

Legursky played well in relief, but the stars of this game were the tackles (cue spit take). Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott put on a clinic. Adams was tremendous in the running game, opening up holes on the right side of the line all game. He was able to get more movement than I would have guessed, and he got up to the second level more than I've seen this season. I cannot think of a lot of running plays where Adams wouldn't have graded out favorably. Scott was effective in the running game as well, he just did so in a less glamorous fashion. The left tackle was on the backside of most running plays, but just like Legursky, he did a good job of keeping his defender on the line of scrimmage, to allow any cutbacks.

As nice as it is that these two were so good on the ground, NFL tackles get paid to protect the quarterback. Adams and Scott did exactly that, allowing just the one coverage sack between them.

Adams wasn't perfect: He did allow a couple of pressures, but considering he was matched up with Clay Matthews so much, he more than held his own. Matthews was asked to spy a lot, but when he was asked to get pressure, he rarely did. Scott was simply dominant. I cannot remember a single time where he allowed any pressure (that's what the comment section is for). Scott was tremendously patient in pass protection and never over-extended himself. He kept a good distance with his hands (meaning he punched at the right time to keep defenders away from his pads) and never seemed to be in trouble. Scott played well last week, but he took it to another level this week. He was so good that I suspect Al Davis is offering a second-rounder and a $10 million signing bonus to bring him to Oakland.

The guards weren't as good as the tackles or Legursky. Ramon Foster was a big part of those holes to the right side. I thought Adams was better, but Foster certainly deserves his due. The right guard wasn't as good in pass protection. He missed Shields on the blitz I mentioned earlier, and he was called for a hold on that same drive (Joe Buck insisted it was Adams, but the ref and I agree that it was Foster). His fellow guard Chris Kemoeatu was by far the weakest link in the chain.

Kemoeatu made a couple of costly mistakes early in the game that put Pittsburgh in a hole. On the first drive of the game, Kemoeatu was beat on a draw on second-and-4. His man didn't make the tackle, but he did gum up the works enough to cause a five-yard loss and a third-and-long later in the drive.

The biggest mistake for Kemoeatu came on the pick-six. His hands were too wide, which allowed him to get bull-rushed into the backfield. The rest of the protection was good enough to allow Roethlisberger to side-step the rusher, but Big Ben thought he could make a play down the field. Roethlisberger tried to make the deep throw but was hit, and the rest is history. After that Kemoeatu was decent enough, especially when he was pulling (except for his obligatory one stupid penalty).

Before we go into Rashard Mendenhall's fumble, I wanted to mention the tight ends. Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth had a hell of a game blocking. They totally handled Green Bay's outside linebackers in the running game and allowed Mendenhall to get outside on multiple occasions. Miller in particular was impressive against Matthews. To put it bluntly, Miller owned Matthews the majority of the game. With the exception of a questionable holding call, I can't remember Miller losing to Matthews on a running play.

A lot of people (most notably, Peter King) felt that the Mendenhall fumble was the biggest play in the game. I disagree with this sentiment, but it certainly was the biggest play of the fourth quarter. Now, there's never any excuse for fumbling the ball, but Mendenhall wasn't put in a very good position by the play. It was a weird play that I hadn't seen the Steelers run before, and it certainly made the comeback a lot more difficult.

Figure 1: Mendenhall's fumble

Green Bay came out in 4-4 personnel and lined up in what was basically a 5-3. The three-technique was to the tight end side (the offense's left). The basic scheme was a down/down/kick scheme (everyone blocks down, and you kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage), which is a variation of Power. This play was unique because the center was the puller, and therefore, he was the kick-out man as opposed to the backside guard.

I have two theories on this particular blocking scheme. It was either a change in scheme made at the line of scrimmage because Legursky wasn't sure he could block back on the three-technique to his left, or it was a poorly designed play. The former means that Kemoeatu was supposed to pull, but they kept him back to block the defensive tackle, which meant the center had to pull. Because I think the Steelers are well-coached, I'm going to believe the former.

Anyway, both down blocks went fine, but Legursky got wrong-armed on the kick-out by Ryan Pickett. Getting wrong-armed means that the defender is able to rip through you with his far arm and get inside leverage. This usually bows the blocker back and makes the runner bounce outside. Here, it meant that Legursky got in the way of the fullback and prevented him from getting a block on Clay Matthews. This wall of humanity met Mendenhall, and he lost the ball when Matthews put his helmet right on it.

If the decision to have the center pull was made at the line of scrimmage, I still wouldn't blame Legursky entirely. Certain plays just don't work against certain fronts. Asking your center to snap the ball, pull, and kick out a 300-pound five-technique is just too much. He's never going to get much of a block on this play. I wonder if, after the safety they gave up to the Jets in the regular season, they changed their scheme to allow the center to pull. Against New York, they pulled the guard against a similar look, and Jason Taylor knifed in for the deciding defensive points. Here they tried to pull the center to shore up the backside, and it was just as disastrous. You have to wonder if there was a way to get out of this play once they saw the defensive front.

That concludes this season's weekly editions of Word of Muth. I plan on doing offseason columns every three or four weeks. Right now the plan is to use a mish-mash of formats -- another Q&A, entire columns dedicated to a single scheme versus different looks, maybe an interview. If you have any suggestions please leave them in the comment section, or e-mail them to me. Also, be sure to follow my new Twitter account, @FO_wordofmuth.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 10 Feb 2011

25 comments, Last at 30 Jul 2011, 10:17pm by DRohan

Comments

1
by QQ (not verified) :: Thu, 02/10/2011 - 6:31pm

"This wall of humanity met Mendenhall, and he lost the ball when Matthews put his helmet right on it."

For what it's worth, it was his shoulder that knocked it out not his helmet.

2
by Willsy :: Thu, 02/10/2011 - 7:40pm

Muth,

Great article as ever.

I watched the game from the pre game perspective that you wrote about and your comments were spot on.

The Steelers were a lot more comfortable with the Packers style line and while they didn't manhandle them they were very comfortable with them all game.

I wondered if Dick LeBeau was asked "what would you do to stop your D getting to Ben?" as the TE's were in fantastic position all game and the seal blocking was very effective. After a while I forgot that the Steeler OL was meant to be a weakness.

If you rotate the game around then it seems that the loss was on the shoulders of the D and the Steeler passing game. The offensive building block was there, particularly when you consider both the DB injuries and AJ Hawks coverage issues, for the passing game to exploit.

Don't show this to Aaron but if FO ever went to a paying access style I would happily pay for the articles you have provided this year.

Re the fumble play I thought at the time it seemed a complicated call for the OL at that stage of the game. They were having general success with the meat and potatoes scheme and I would have gone back to the outside seal block well one more time.

That said the efforts of the Packers fill in's, particularly Bishop for GB and Legursky for the Steelers, shows how many great players are out there who can play at an elite level when needed.

Ah now for the draft.

Cheers,

Willsy

3
by JJ Cooper (not verified) :: Thu, 02/10/2011 - 8:49pm

Ben,

The reason they changed up the blocking scheme on the Mendenhall fumble was because Kemoeatu wasn't in the game. He was on the bench with Trai Essex playing left guard (one of three positions he played during the game). With Essex in there, the Steelers didn't feel comfortable asking him to pull (at least that's my supposition), so they instead had the more mobile Legursky pull. It didn't work out, and Legursky was driven back, but that's the reason as best as I can tell.

4
by Will Allen :: Thu, 02/10/2011 - 10:09pm

Ben, I think Mike Tice did a great job for the Bears this year, and I think it would be an interesting interview. Tice may be media-shy these days, given how he has been burned in the past from being too accessible, but for an interview on the technical aspects of o-line play, he might be willing to give up some time.

Alternatively, I'd like a one question interview with Brad Childress, asking him to compare and contrast Matt Birk and John Sullivan.

8
by clnr :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 1:51am

Would love to read that!

10
by dmb :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 11:35am

Will, I've never been too clear on this: what are your feelings on Birk and Sullivan?

/Trolling

15
by Will Allen :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 1:26pm

It's the bitter obsession I've used as a replacement for my Cottrellophobia. I need a new one every few years, until the Vikings win a Super Bowl. In other words, it's something I'll have until I go to the big End Zone in the sky!

5
by Justin H (not verified) :: Thu, 02/10/2011 - 11:32pm

Ben,
After watching the pick-six several times, I noticed that Jonathon Scott was free for a second (or more) while the tight end briefly occupied the end rusher. Scott briefly assisted Kemoeatu with a weak arm block on the interior lineman, Howard Green. Though the primary failure is on Kemoeatu, It seems Scott could've saved the play if he put a little effort into that arm block. Maybe it's too much to ask? (I never played, so this is just an arm chair opinion.) Thoughts?

6
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 02/10/2011 - 11:57pm

This is probably the first time I've actually seen a game from this column. Upon reading this and not seeing the game, I could only conclude the Steelers OL dominated the Packers D. I have to wonder if we saw the same game. Along with the holding that was only questionable to Steelers fans, the Steelers lost yardage on at least a half dozen plays not counting sacks. Maybe they played better than expected. Yes, they won several battles along the line. But I only saw an average line, that suddenly looked better once Woodson went out.

13
by CraigInDC :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 12:28pm

If Woodson weren't hurt he would have already handled this mess Egypt. Mubarak would be no match for a healthy Woodson!

7
by Anonymously Social (not verified) :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 12:36am

On the Mendenhall fumble, Clay Matthews called a scrape technique with Ryan Pickett. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Pickett, this meant that Pickett was to penetrate the inside gap, crossing the face of the Tackle, and allow Matthews to get quick penetration from the outside.

If true (and I have no reason to doubt it), that would explain the Steeler lineman getting wrong armed.

9
by techvet (not verified) :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 8:45am

Watch the NFL.com video. You can hear Matthews' audio on the fumble play. Whether he was right or lucky, he anticipated the play coming to his side because there were Steeler players looking over at him and, as noted above, gave a call to Pickett right before the ball was snapped.

I also wonder if Capers blitzed less than normal in this game, preferring to spy Big Ben and limit his running. My question is this: after Mendenhall gashed the Packers on that one drive, why did Pittsburgh move away from the run? Perhaps because of the fumble. I can't remember: did Kemo come out because his shoe came off or was that Scott?

12
by Scudbot (not verified) :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 12:13pm

> Capers blitzed less than normal in this game, preferring to spy Big Ben and limit his running.

That is exactly correct. Big Ben is not a great pocket passer and the Packers pretty much game planned to keep him there.

11
by JCRODRIGUEZ (not verified) :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 11:41am

Ben, congrats for the column, this was a hell of an article, i really hope that your contract does not expire after this season and we can have this powerful and well versed insight of the O-line play.

By the way, what are your thoughts for the Steelers' O-line going into the probable 2011 Season?....with all the guys coming back from injuries, and the recent play of the backups, would you think that a 1st or 2nd round pick is needed to improve this bunch?, or could bring lesser talent and keep developing them and use those picks on getting replacements for an aging D?

Again, hell of a season, great work!

14
by Joseph :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 12:50pm

If comments #3,8,&9 are correct (and I have no reason to doubt them), that sure explains a LOT of the "mystery" of that play and its outcome.
To me, EVERY team could get some GREAT PR in the offseason by having its HC, OC, DC, the QB, & one defensive player break down one game this way. Just those 5 & a team reporter, in a video room, and then post the video on the team website, or the newspaper's web site. The Saints tried to do this with Brees, HC Payton, a reporter, and a videographer for last year's SB--but something happened, and they were only able to show the video of them breaking down certain plays from the 1st half (which was less exciting from a Saints' point of view).

16
by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 2:38pm

Raji had four qb pressures against the Steelers with three of against Kemoeatu. According to the GB writer Bob McGinn Mathews was doubled 40% of the time by the Steelers.

I do think the two week interval REALLY helps older players like Adams and Clifton. Both guys played very well against speed players who during the regular season would struggle against those same type of players.

17
by Blue Steel (not verified) :: Fri, 02/11/2011 - 3:55pm

"I wonder if, after the safety they gave up to the Jets in the regular season, they changed their scheme to allow the center to pull."

Scott had some bad moments after that on the same blocking assignment. Got yanked and dressed down by Kugler at one point. After that they quit asking him to make that lunge block to cut off backside B penetration. Instead, they started sacrificing point of attack blocking by having the center turn back and wall off backside penetration. And as mentioned, the inert tub of goo known as Essex was in at RG. No way he's ever going to be asked to pull anything but another poptart out of the toaster.

18
by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Sat, 02/12/2011 - 4:21pm

I was visiting relatives who were watching the game for a second time. What caught my attention was that except for one play in the first half I didn't see Miller handling Mathews at all. When Mendenhall would get a good run it was typically a guard pulling who picked up Clay. And then there was the holding call on Miller. Spaeth did have a good block on one play.

I didn't hang around for the second half so maybe that is the reference point.

19
by Trulee Pist (not verified) :: Sat, 02/12/2011 - 6:22pm

Anonymously Social (#7 above) has it right. It was all about preparation.

At 2:08 here, Clay Matthews said that with two weeks to prepare, he'd seen this play on film and the Pack had a plan for it.

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-player-interviews/09000d5d81e2e2e6/Champs-...

At 1:20 and again at 3:30 here, he says he told his defensive lineman what to do--"scrape" or blow up the play inside, and then Matthews intended to come around the fullback (really a TE playing fullback, right?) and in that way, Pickett and Matthews were able to meet at the runner and pop the ball out. Or as it actually played out, Pickett, the center, the tackle, the fullback and Matthews all met at Mendenhall, with Matthews loading up and slamming Mendenhall's ball-carrying arm and ribs with his shoulder.

Of course, (as techvet #9 notes above), the other part of the story is here. Watch the first minute of this video, which starts with GB OLB Coach Greene telling Matthews: "Everybody looks up to Wood(son) for leadership, he's gone. Nobody is f__ing standing up. It is time."

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-super-bowl/09000d5d81e417f9/Sound-FX-Super...

Then Matthews goes on the field, tells Raji and Peprah, "They are pulling this way, I've got a feeling," then shouting to Pickett as the play starts, "Spill it, Pickett, spill it!" On the sidelines, Pickett credits Matthews with a good call on that play, leading to the fumble.

21
by Flounder :: Sat, 02/12/2011 - 11:31pm

I have watched those videos several time, and it is cool every time. I also found it interesting he had the feeling they were pulling his way because "they keep looking at me." So besides film study, Pitt also apparently tipped their hand in the huddle.

20
by Trulee Pist (not verified) :: Sat, 02/12/2011 - 6:24pm

Ooops, the interview video with clips at 1:20 and 3:30 is here:

http://www.packers.com/media-center/videos/Super-Bowl-LB-Clay-Matthews-P...

22
by Dog (not verified) :: Mon, 02/14/2011 - 7:13pm

So, besides being responsible for a pick-6 (which almost always leads to a SB victory, statistically) and the momentum changing pivotal Fumble to Start the 4th.....

OK.

Besides those two game-defining plays. The Pittsburgh O-line did a great job vs. the Packers D which had the goal of, as mentioned, containing Big Ben...using Mathews as a spy vs. pass...down Shields and Woodson, at times Collins. An O-line will tend to look better if the 2nd and 3rd best cover guys are off the field. You can't commit the resources to blitz with so many holes in the back-end. So, of course, 6 (Steelers used TEs in protection the whole game) vs. 3 or 4 rushers will look like a win.

23
by 57_Varieties (not verified) :: Tue, 02/15/2011 - 10:15pm

That was great. Thanks for the whole season, it's been a blast.

24
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25
by DRohan :: Sat, 07/30/2011 - 10:17pm

I disagree.