by Ben Muth
I open this week with a little housekeeping. I don't plan on picking any new teams for the playoffs, so this column will run for as long as Pittsburgh is in the playoffs. The only exception will be next week's edition. That will be a Mailbag-type column. Send all questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or post them in the comments section below.
Questions can be about offensive line technique, schemes, or just about anything. The only limit is your imagination. (I actually had an art teacher who said that. Apparently lack of talent and poor public school supplies were not as limiting as one would think.) Please refrain from asking about specific players who aren't on any of the teams I've covered. I probably haven't watched those players enough to form any real opinion (I guess that is a limit, sorry Ms. G). Also, questions about how awesome Stanford is will probably make the final draft. If you just want to see your name in print, this is your chance. And with that out of the way, we can get to this week's column.
The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a win over the Browns on Sunday to clinch the second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. Troy Polamalu had an interception, Mike Wallace was open deep, Antwaan Randle El threw a touchdown, and the Steelers rolled to a 41-9 victory. Those were the broad strokes, but it really is about all you need to know. With the exception of the Randle El touchdown pass, the Steelers kept it pretty basic, especially in the second half, and prepared for their second-round playoff game. Since this week's game was pretty uninteresting, I'm going to focus on the Steelers offensive line in general, and what the unit means to Pittsburgh going forward.
Starting from the left, we'll discuss Jonathan Scott. Scott became a starter in the middle of the season when Max Starks was placed on Injured Reserve with a neck injury. This was after Willie Colon was put on IR with a ruptured Achilles in the offseason. Rather than start the season with Scott at either tackle, Pittsburgh brought in Flozell Adams in August to start at right tackle and keep Scott on the bench.
Coach Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh staff didn't think Jonathan Scott was ready to start. They were right: Scott has struggled all year. His biggest problem is quickness off the edge, which is the last thing you want a left tackle to struggle with. Scott's kick slide is slow and narrow (meaning he doesn't get a lot of width when he pass sets). It's a bad combination that has led to a lot hits, pressures, and sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.
While Scott is a better run blocker, he doesn't really excel in this field either. He is a decent drive blocker, but not as good as Adams, which means he is usually on the backside of running plays. On the backside of most running plays the tackle is responsible for either cutting off three-techniques or getting up to the backside linebacker. Scott struggles with both of these types of blocks.
If I had to describe Scott, it would be as a replacement-level player. Every team has a guy like this. He could be a starting right tackle, a swing tackle, or a member of the practice squad, depending on the quality of the team. The only problem is, the Steelers are trying to win a Super Bowl with this type of player starting at left tackle. That's like trying to win the World Series with Willie Bloomquist batting cleanup.
Just next to Jonathan Scott is left guard is Chris Kemoeatu. I feel for Kemoeatu because he is in a system that magnifies his weaknesses. At his best, Kemoeatu is a powerful drive blocker and effective Power play puller. However, the Steelers haven't ran Power as much this year as they have in the past. Instead Pittsburgh has focused on more zone-blocking schemes.
Kemoeatu is capable of running the inside zone play so long as he isn't forced to get to the second level, where he isn't as effective. Kemoeatu isn't a great pass blocker but he is passable on the inside, where you rarely are forced to block elite pass rushers. In the end Kemoeatu ends up being a decent offensive lineman, with a couple of clear strengths and weaknesses -- like most NFL offensive linemen.
Maurkice Pouncey was the Steelers' best offensive lineman this season. He has tremendous athletic ability that is most prevalent while working at the second level. Pouncey is as good as any player I saw this season at locking onto linebackers and knocking them out of running lanes. Not only does he lock on to and finish this type of block, he is very good at finishing all blocks.
An opposing defender will always try and shed the blocker and make a tackle. Good players have the ability to sustain theirs blocks long enough to allow the runner to get through. Great players have the ability to accelerate their feet when they feel the defender trying to escape, and to finish the block by running the defender into the ground. Pouncey has good enough feet to do this -- and has done it a lot this season. Finally, Pouncey has really good pass blocking technique. His body position is text book, meaning he has a low hips, wide feet, and his head is back and out of the way.
But as Bret Michaels once sang, every rose has its thorns. Powerful defensive tackles are Pouncey's thorns. When the rookie has been matched up against stronger defenders (Haloti Ngata and Domata Peko spring to mind) he has struggled mightily. Pro Bowl centers shouldn't be dominated by anyone -- even Haloti Ngata. Fortunately, a center will usually have help and is rarely asked to block defensive tackles one-on-one. Unfortunately, centers are asked to block by themselves a lot more against 3-4 defenses, and the No. 1 seed in the AFC happens to run a 3-4 and have a very big nose tackle.
At right guard the Steelers have Ramon Foster, another big, lumbering offensive lineman. Foster is another good drive blocker, and he has the added benefit of being able to do it a lot. The Steelers seem to prefer to run to his side (especially Power, probably because of Foster's lack of pulling ability). They average 4.09 and 5.07 Adjusted Line Yards off right tackle and around the right end, as opposed to 2.93 and 4.76 yards to the left.
It's a good thing the Steelers like to run to his side, because Foster isn't really good at anything but drive blocking. He is too slow to cut anybody off on the backside. In fact, I would say the Steelers' struggles running to the left have as much to do with Foster as anyone else. Also, he is probably the worst pass blocker on the team. Scott struggles more, but he is usually blocking the other team's best rusher. Foster can struggle against the most pedestrian pass rushers. With both he and Scott in the starting lineup, the Steelers have two pretty big question marks heading into the post season.
Finally, we get to the big veteran Flozell Adams. Adams is pretty much the exact opposite of Pouncey. He is old, slow, and underrated whereas Pouncey is young, quick, and overhyped. Pouncey is the better player these days, but the margin isn't as big as some would have you believe (notably NFL.com columnist Dave Dameshek, whose columns I usually enjoy). Adams is still a very good drive blocker, probably the best on a team full of solid ones. You don't want him out in space, or trying to lead around on a lot of tosses, but he still has his place. In the passing game he has enough guile (probably the coolest trait anyone can attain) to be serviceable. He can certainly be beaten around the edge occasionally, but he is not the biggest leak in the ship.
If you're a Steelers fan, you probably knew your offensive line wasn't great before you read this, and I didn't do much to change your opinion. The problem is that the Steelers have a lot of big hosses up front who are pretty good at drive blocking, but not much else. The holes and inconsistencies make it difficult for the Steelers to sustain long drives against good defenses, which is what they will face in the playoffs.
The good news is that the Steelers are explosive at the skill positions. Wallace may be the best big-play receiver in the AFC, and Emmanuel Sanders can run as well. Rashard Mendenhall may not be Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles, but he has a style of running that is very conducive to 15-to-20 yard runs. And of course, the Steelers have Roethlisberger. His ability to extend plays in the backfield can lead to huge plays down the field.