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.