Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
27 Jan 2011
by Ben Muth
Everyone who has listened to a color commentator knows that numbers do not matter. This is especially true for quarterbacks, during the playoffs, and for quarterbacks in the playoffs. It is important to note that there is one situation in which numbers do seem to matter. That is if you lose.
This is especially true for quarterbacks, during the playoffs, and for quarterbacks in the playoffs. Peyton Manning critics will be the first to disparage stats as a way to measure a player's legacy, but the first to point out his passer rating in playoff losses. This would be like claiming that Cindy Crawford could never be the most beautiful woman in the world because true beauty is on the inside, then pointing out that she has a mole on her face.
Once Brown caught that pass and sealed the win, he rendered Big Ben's yards per attempt moot. Roethlisberger had apparently once again played a great game when it mattered the most. Just as he had all year, the rugged superstar had put an injury-battered offense on his back and made the play to win the game. This is the story that has emerged from the AFC championship game. There are two problems with this line of thinking:
1. It is wrong.
2. It is not as interesting as the real story.
The real story from the AFC title game was the Steelers running attack playing its best game of the year. The much-maligned (often in this column) offensive line stepped up and played better than it ever had as a unit. Rashard Mendenhall certainly did his part (probably more than his part), but the big boys up front did theirs too. The unit wasn't overpowering. The linemen didn't knock the Jets from end to end, but they did sustain their blocks and force the Jets to make (and miss) a lot of arm tackles. They did this despite losing their best lineman to an injury on the first drive of the game.
Flozell Adams and Ramon Foster played light years better than they did against Baltimore. In fact, the right side of the line was largely responsible for the improved play of the unit. The lead-footed duo consistently got to linebackers for the first time all year. Their combination blocks have turned into straight double teams in the past, with neither of them ever climbing to the second level.
On Sunday this wasn't an issue, as one of the two always seemed to be plodding into a linebacker. The best example of this was on Mendenhall's long second-quarter run, where Adams and Foster performed a textbook combo block to spring Mendenhall. Adams may have had a couple of breakdowns, but nowhere near what he had last week, and less than his season average.
Word of Muth punching bag Jonathan Scott was not his usual revolving door self, either. He may have played the best of any of the Steelers offensive linemen (wow, that looks weird in print). The Steelers ran mainly to the right, but this week Scott was much better at cutting off backside penetration. This allowed for a lot more cutback opportunities for Mendenhall.
I don't want to downplay the Big Jon's contributions in the running game, but what was most impressive to me was his improvement in pass protection. I don't know what Scott did to play better. His technique didn't look noticeably different, except that he was sustaining his blocks a lot longer. Perhaps Jonathan Scott is the Mark Sanchez of left tackles.
The remaining two Pittsburgh linemen were not as effective. Chris Kemoeatu played poorly from the first series of the game. He was asked to pull twice on the first drive for Pittsburgh and tripped both times. It got better from there, but not much. Kemoeatu just didn't seem to play with his typical sense of urgency. His strengths -- finishing blocks and effective pulling -- weren't as prevalent in this game, while his weakness -- poor pass blocking -- remained. After playing well last week. this is a step back that the Steelers may not be able to overcome against the Packers.
Once Maurkice Pouncey went down with an injury, the Steelers turned to Doug Legursky. I've been a fan of Legursky's all year. He's filled in at all three interior spots and always acquitted himself well. He's even been used effectively in goal-line situations. It turns out a little Legursky goes a long way.
The Marshall product looked like a different player this week. He looked flustered and overmatched throughout the game, and it looks like he has really short arms (I couldn't find the measurement). The problem with that is that he has to play nose to nose with everyone and can be thrown off of blocks more easily. To get away with short arms, even on the inside where arm length isn't as necessary as it is at tackle, you have to have great grip strength, which Legursky seems to lack. A lot of players have overcome short arms by being better in other areas. Last Sunday, Legusrsky didn't show that ability, but with the increased reps he will get in practice over the next two weeks, he will certainly have an opportunity to hone his craft.
A couple of weeks ago, when I did a mailbag article, I got a question about pass protections with pullers. I didn't answer it then because it seemed like something that deserved more attention than I could give as one answer among money. Luckily, the Steelers provided a perfect example of this type of play. On the first drive of the game Roethlisberger hit Heath Miller for a diving catch inside the 10-yard line. The play was overturned, but that doesn't diminish the scheme of the play; it diminishes the perception that Roethlisberger played an amazing game.
The Steelers motioned into what was basically a Weak I-formation. They faked a weakside power, a play they ran effectively the first time they played New York, and threw it over the top. By faking a play that the Jets had undoubtedly been preparing for early in the game, they got the most bang for their buck.
As a game goes along, the game plan gradually loses traction. You stop worrying about stuff you've prepared for and start worrying about stuff that is hurting you. The Steelers were able to use currency they had built up from the previous game to take an early advantage. Plus, the play was designed to go to a player aligned like a fullback, and defensive secondaries lose those guys a lot.
|Figure 1: Power Pass|
Of course, the key to any shot play (a play where you know you're going to take a shot) is protection. Here the Steelers had to pull someone create the illusion, which is always difficult on pass protection. Pittsburgh solved this problem by keeping two tight ends and a running back in to block (one of the tight ends released eventually).
They faked Power to the left, meaning the puller is the right guard Foster. The running back is also going to the left, since that is the direction of the fake. Because the play fake necessitates two guys going to the left, the Steelers slide everyone else to the right. This means that the pulling guard and running back are responsible for any C- and D-Gap rushers to the left. The rest of the offensive line simply has the gap to their right; it is actually a really simple protection.
Flozell Adams does something on the play that seems small but is actually very smart. He is supposed to slide to the right, but he notices a three-technique inside. Instead of immediately sliding out, he takes a small step inside and offers hand and body presence until the center, Pouncey, can get to the three-techniques. Adams accomplishes this by keeping his eyes outside so he can still pick up any rushers that threaten his gap. It's a little play that goes a long way in locking up the protection.
Next week the plan is to watch some Packers games and try to break down the matchups up front for Pittsburgh. In doing that, I'll try to explain some things that the guys I played with and I look at when we watch film. It should be fun.
47 comments, Last at 10 May 2011, 1:48pm by loopslike