Word of Muth: Mattison's Mismatches

Word of Muth: Mattison's Mismatches
Word of Muth: Mattison's Mismatches
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Steelers beat the Ravens on Sunday in what was probably their biggest win of the season. They went on the road and beat a divisional rival to take first place in the AFC North and gain the inside track to the second seed and a first-round bye. That being said, I'm less optimistic about their Super Bowl hopes now than I was going into the weekend.

After watching the game, I just don't see how this offense is going to be able to score enough points to win three playoff games. Of course the main, although not the only, concern for this team is the offensive line. When a team's offensive line is inconsistent, the offense has trouble sustaining drives. It only takes one hold or one sack to kill a drive. When you add three sacks and two holding penalties (which is not a stretch for a mediocre offensive line) to the non-blocking-related drive-killers, drops, and turnovers, you limiting your scoring opportunities and force yourself to rely on big plays.

This column has dealt a lot with different schemes and formations teams use to gain an advantage over the defense. Every scheme ever discussed in this column has one thing in common -- they all require the ability to win one-on-one blocks at or near the point of attack. There are ways to create double teams and block defenders with formations, but somewhere along the line, your guy has to beat theirs. The Steelers are struggling in these one-on-one matchups, and that goes for everyone up front.

At guard, the Steelers have two pretty good run blockers. Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster have both shown the ability to knock defensive tackles straight off the ball, especially on double teams, when they have to. While that is certainly a valuable asset, it alone doesn't make you a good run blocker. Neither man is effective blocking at the second level, and both also struggle cutting off defenders when they are on the backside of plays.

Because they have struggled so much cutting people off, Rashard Mendenhall has been forced to cut back on nearly all zone running plays. In fact, you can put Flozell Adams in the same category as the guards. The cut-back is a dangerous weapon in the zone game, but it should be a change up -- it certainly can't be the only option. After all, even Trevor Hoffman threw a fastball.

Maurkice Pouncey is a little more interesting to me. Pouncey continues to be somewhere between superb and transcendent in blocking at the second level. The guy has great clamps, the ability to just lock onto a defender with his hands, and incredibly quick feet. Not only that, he has a tremendous motor and tries to finish every play.

That being said, I've now seen him get tossed around by bigger, stronger players in a couple of games. A lot of guys (maybe all guys) are going to look bad against Haloti Ngata, but this is the NFL, and you have to be able to block elite players if you want to advance in the playoffs. This is especially true in the AFC, where the road to the Super Bowl will almost certainly go through either Vince Wilfork or Ngata, and possibly both. If the Steelers hope to make it to Dallas, Pouncey will have to find a way to hold his own against these war daddies (my personal favorite football coach talent description).

One thing that is often overlooked about defensive alignment or blitz design is matchup creation. Everyone notices when a safety comes unblocked off the edge or a linebacker destroys a quarterback because he fakes dropping into a zone before he explodes into the backfield. What defensive coordinators don't get enough credit for is putting their best players in one-on-one situations that they can win. The remainder of this article will focus on how Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison got Terrell Suggs isolated on different offensive linemen.

Figure 1: The Ravens' first sack

With 12 minutes to go in the first quarter, the Steelers came out in a shotgun formation with the running back offset to the right. The Ravens came out in a four-down front (Jarret Johnson was standing up, but to an offensive lineman, he would've been counted as a down lineman) with three-techniques on both sides. Ray Lewis was standing near the line on the left side, just outside the three-techniques. The other linebacker, Tavares Gooden, wasn't near the line but was indicating, through body language and the coverage behind him, that he was coming. Now, judging by how much Ray Lewis was talking before the play, I assume the blitz was actually keyed by which direction the back was offset. Since the back is to the right, the offensive line will probably work left. As a result, the Ravens want to send the pressure to the right.

That's exactly what happened. The Ravens sent Gooden and dropped Lewis and Johnson. Pittsburgh ended up with three offensive linemen blocking Cory Redding and one-on-one blocks against Ngata, Suggs, and Gooden. Both Ngata and Suggs won, and they met at Roethlisberger for the sack -- and the broken nose.

The best thing about this really simple stunt is that the Ravens only brought four rushers, allowing them to play anything they wanted behind it (anything behind a blitz is coverage). Schemes like this are great if you think you have personnel advantages up front, because they allow you to do what you need in the secondary, while gaining slight advantages in the pass rush.

Figure 2: Delayed TED

An even simpler way to get a favorable matchup for a defensive end/outside linebacker is to run a delayed TED (tackle and end) twist. This probably doesn't seem like the advantage until you think about it harder. A delayed TED, like the one the Ravens ran with about 14 minutes left in the second quarter, is designed to pick the offensive tackle off with the guard and defensive tackle. This allows the defensive end to loop inside. The key to the delay is it allows the defensive tackle to get to the point on the field where the offensive guard has to stay on him and the offensive tackle can't get inside him. Haloti Ngata did a great job of driving up field and taking up the two blockers.

Ideally, the offensive line would be sliding away on this stunt, leaving nothing but an open rush lane or, at worst, a running back. But in this case, Pouncey was working towards the stunt. Like I said before, a defensive end or outside linebacker on a center may not seem like a mismatch, but it is more of one than it seems. Keep in mind that a center's world in pass protection usually consists of blocking 330-ponders that are three inches away from their face. Now, you are asking them to block an incredibly quick 260-pound man with a four-yard running head start.

That's not easy, and Maurkice Pouncey knows that now. When Suggs came around, it looked like Pouncey was trying to be light on his feet to counter Suggs' speed. Unfortunately Suggs used his speed to run into Pouncey and knock him on his ass. The result was a sack. Mattison again put his guy in a situation (one-on-one with a lineman who never has to block that caliber of pass rusher) to succeed.

Figure 3: Apache

Finally, we reach the third-biggest play of the game (the biggest was obviously the fumble; the second was the Steelers' touchdown). It was first-and-goal late in the fourth quarter, right after the Steelers recovered Joe Flacco's fumble. The Ravens came out in the best-named front in football, the Bear -- aka, Navajo, Apache, Double Eagle, it doesn't matter which one you use. They all sound cool. The Bear front was the base front in the old 46 defense (named after Doug Plank). It consists of a head-up nose tackle, two three-techniques, and two defensive ends/outside linebackers. Buddy Ryan created it to stop the run, but more and more coordinators are using it in nickel situations to create matchup problems in pass protection.

The thing about the Bear is that there are only two ways to block it: full slide or straight man. Defensive coordinators know this, and they can tell what kind of scheme the offense is going to use based on film study. Well, the Steelers went straight man block, with a scheme most teams call "big on big" (meaning our five guys against your five).

It's probably the best way to go unless you happen to be the one NFL team with Jonathan Scott at left tackle. Unfortunately for the Steelers, their number came up, and they were stuck holding Scott. Suggs beat Scott badly with a quick jab step inside and a club to the outside and was hanging off Roethlisberger just as he finished his drop. Somehow, Roethlisberger stayed up and threw the ball away. Still, it was another example of Mattison putting a very good player, Suggs, in a very good situation.


19 comments, Last at 14 Dec 2010, 8:37pm

#1 by cardroo // Dec 09, 2010 - 2:15pm

Great column per usual.

Points: 0

#2 by ammek // Dec 09, 2010 - 2:22pm

As an Arizonan, I thought you'd use 'Desert Swarm'. Or is that different?

Points: 0

#3 by BenM (not verified) // Dec 09, 2010 - 2:25pm

My only complaint is that your columns are too short.

Great stuff!

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#4 by Spielman // Dec 09, 2010 - 3:00pm

Absolutely terrific stuff.

Points: 0

#5 by joepinion (not verified) // Dec 09, 2010 - 3:09pm

Wow, great article, I really learned something.

As far as the Steelers' playoff potential, I'd say the #1 hope is the chance that Aaron Smith comes back for the playoffs. Note that they looked like the 2008 Steeler defense before he hurt his arm against the Dolphins. If he came back and they look like they did then, they'll have a good chance against anyone, Jonathan Scott be damned.

Points: 0

#6 by jfsh // Dec 09, 2010 - 3:58pm

Great column. Here's the video of the third play:

Watching Roethlisberger fight off defenders always reminds me of an amazing Planet Earth clip where a swarm of lions take down an elephant. Starts around 5:00 in (warning, kind of intense):

Points: 0

#11 by joon // Dec 09, 2010 - 8:50pm

thanks for the video link. i usually have to watch a play about six times before i understand everything that's going on in the blocking, even when it's explained very clearly. (and i pretty much have no chance if it's not explained, which is what's so great about this column.)

Points: 0

#7 by Dean // Dec 09, 2010 - 4:15pm

Great article, as usual.

The offseason is coming up, and I know you’ve been flooded with suggestions for what to write about in the offseason. Allow me to throw one more in. Maybe you could give us an article about blocking from the tight end position? What are some of the nuances that they have to master that are unique to the position? Motion, lining up in various spots – what angles do these spots help/hurt with? When are teams tipping their hands by where their TEs line up? We know some guys have reputations for being good blockers or not so good, but how accurate are the perceptions? If anybody is going to give some love to the GURT, it’s you.

Points: 0

#8 by Jerry // Dec 09, 2010 - 6:25pm

More kudos. I thought Jonathan Scott was the likely reason for Suggs' dominance, but there was more to it.

I'm amazed that the Steelers have gotten this far with a line held together by chewing gum and scotch tape; it'll be interesting to see how deep they can get.

Points: 0

#9 by 57_Varieties (not verified) // Dec 09, 2010 - 8:20pm

Interesting, thanks. On Super Bowl: ran the experiment 2 years ago and it worked. Depends on matchups, we need someone to kill off the Pats. I thought the Jets had a shot, and maybe they do, but Monday night created some doubt.

Points: 0

#10 by chemical burn // Dec 09, 2010 - 8:34pm

"Created some doubt?" Don't understate it or anything, man.

Points: 0

#16 by erniecohen // Dec 10, 2010 - 11:10am

The experiment two years ago didn't feature Jonathan Scott at LT. There is a reason that PIT franchised an average LT - if you have a LT that can't pass block, you are pretty much dead meat.

I'm wondering whether it's time to consider rotating Adams, Essex, and Scott, moving Adams over to LT, Essex to RT, and Scott to RG. This would at least allow Ben to clearly see the DL who are about to kill him.

Points: 0

#13 by SteveNC (not verified) // Dec 10, 2010 - 4:55am

I enjoyed the article, but I was wondering about this:

>you have to be able to block elite players
>if you want to advance in the playoffs.
>This is especially true in the AFC, where
>the road to the Super Bowl will almost certainly
>go through either Vince Wilfork or Ngata, and possibly both.

From this should we assume that the author is implying that Wilfork is an elite player about as good as Ngata?

Points: 0

#14 by Anonymous454545 (not verified) // Dec 10, 2010 - 8:40am

Even as a Pats fan, I wouldn't say Wilfork is as dynamic as Ngata has been this year. Pats have been using Wilfork at DE a lot too--yeah, that's a a big DE. He doesn't really pressure the QB at either position like Ngata. Since the Irrational Brady-Manning debate is taking a a sabbatical this year, maybe FO needs to start an Irrational Ngata/Wilfork debate thread!

Points: 0

#17 by Dr. Mooch // Dec 10, 2010 - 2:42pm

Excellent article. I was hoping Muth might cover the Bills-Steelers a week ago, just to hear what he might have to say about Pouncey. Kyle Williams made an awful mess of the Steelers interior line during that game.

Points: 0

#18 by The Truth (not verified) // Dec 12, 2010 - 9:44am

So basically it's a poorly coached offensive line or a line full of morons. Has any team had any difficulty at all applying pressure and/or getting tackles i the backfield against the Steelers' offensive line?

Points: 0

#19 by tequila (not verified) // Dec 14, 2010 - 8:37pm

Actually the line has been coached really well comparative to prior years. The main problem is that is that the line has been reshuffled constantly due to injuries, so you have guys playing out of position and guys like Jonathan Scott who should definitely not be starting regularly in fact starting regularly.

Points: 0

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