Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: New Team in Town

Word of Muth: New Team in Town
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

There aren't a lot of rules at "Word of Muth," but one of them is that when you fire your coach halfway through a season, you're out of the column. So goodbye, Dallas Cowboys, it's been fun. I'll miss Andre Gurode, watching him play was pretty enjoyable. With the Cowboys out, the Redskins on a bye, and the Cardinals losing in a way that makes me not want to watch that game ever again, I needed a new team to write about.

Big cheese Aaron Schatz suggested I go with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I liked that idea just fine. The team is great on defense and has a mobile quarterback who can keep plays alive. By far, the team's biggest question mark is their offensive line. They are a lot like what the Cowboys were supposed to be this year. After one game, I'm already excited to have Pittsburgh in the Word of Muth rotation for the rest of 2010.

The first thing that jumped out at me is the fact that Pittsburgh ran one Power play all game. (A Power play is a specific running play; a power play (lower case) is a general style of running play.) That seems insane to me. In the last decade, Power has been associated with Pittsburgh, like the quick slant was associated with the 49ers in the '80s. It was their bread and butter, pure and simple. First-year offensive line coach Sean Kugler is probably a big reason for this. Kugler came over from Buffalo in the offseason and is trying to change the culture after last year's struggles up front.

The Steelers are running a lot more zone now, and I'm not sure they have the personnel up front to do it. The kind of personnel it takes to run Power is completely different then the kind you want to run a zone scheme. Pittsburgh's offensive line is big -- like, really big. The only starter under 315 pounds is rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, which makes sense because he was drafted after the change in philosophy.

Everyone remembers the small, quick line of the Denver Broncos carving up defenses in the late '90s with the zone scheme and sub-300 pounders manning their positions. The Steelers may be wary of going that small, but having three key linemen weigh more than 340 (Max Starks, Flozell Adams, and Chris Kemoeatu) and expecting to major in the zone stretch scheme seems a little unrealistic. Still, after watching Rashard Mendenhall closely, I can see why the coaching staff wanted to try and make the change. Mendenhall looks like he will fit perfectly into the new scheme. Now the front office just needs to go out and get the guys up front that can complement their running back.

The scheme may be new, but injuries up front have had a far stronger effect on the offense. Colon was put on Injured Reserve before the season even started with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Trai Essex has missed four games due to injury. Max Starks was put on IR with neck problems this week after battling injuries all year. Against Cincinnati, both Pouncey and Kemoeatu went down (Pouncey would return). This unit has been shuffled around so much it shouldn't surprise anyone when they struggle. But at the end of the day, we have a team that has put in a new scheme, has dealt with multiple injuries up front, has already used three starting quarterbacks ... and is still tied for the division lead.

Now let's get into Monday's game against the Bengals. Since I've spent the last two paragraphs making excuses for the Steelers offensive line, it shouldn't be surprising that they weren't dominant on Monday night. Jonathan Scott's struggles at left tackle were the most obvious. He seemed to have a bit of a soft shoulder in pass protection, which allowed defenders to run around the hoop to the quarterback, forcing Roethlisberger to step up in the pocket frequently. He also struggled to get any kind of stretch from a defensive end in the running game. In his defense, it is never easy to get moved from tackle to guard and then back to tackle in a single game, like he was asked to do Monday night. But now that he is officially the starting left tackle, he will be able to focus on one position, which should help him improve.

Both of Pittsburgh's guards, Trai Essex and Chris Kemoeatu, were average. Their biggest problem seemed to be climbing to linebackers in the running game. Both got fine movement on down defensive linemen and were passable in protection, but they were unable to engage second level defenders consistently.

After Kemoeatu was injured, Doug Legursky came in the game and appeared to be a lot quicker than either of the two starters. In fact, I thought Legursky was giving the kind of performance that could win him a starting job. That is until he whiffed on the one Power (a single back shotgun version of the play) the Steelers ran all game. It was on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter, and the whiff forced the Steelers to attempt a field goal, which they missed. Those are the kind of mistakes that you cannot make when you are trying to usurp someone in the starting lineup.

Flozell Adams and Maurkice Pouncey were an interesting contrast. Pouncey is a heavily praised rookie who was drafted to anchor a new scheme. Adams is a much-maligned veteran who was brought in as a stop-gap once the injury bug bit. It is easy to see why the Steelers staff is so high on Pouncey. He is athletic, shows great technique, and carries himself like a guy who belongs rather than a rookie. That said, I don't think he played particularly well. There were multiple occasions where Domata Peko knocked Pouncey straight into the backfield, disrupting any cutback chances Mendenhall might have.

Peko certainly looked too strong at times for the rookie, but that may have been due to the injury Pouncey suffered in the first half. Pouncey was great at climbing to the second level and decent in pass protection, but after hearing so much praise for him, I suppose my expectations were a little too high.

Adams, on the other hand, may have struggled getting outside defenders in the running game (which is essential in the zone scheme), but I expected that going in. I was pleasantly surprised with how well Adams did in pass protection. If you were to grade the two, they probably played about the same, but I was more impressed with Adams because I wasn't expecting it.

The Steelers did manage to put up 27 points, but that number is deceiving when you consider field position and a 39-yard touchdown pass thrown by Antwaan Randle El on a trick play. The Steelers struggled to move the ball consistently for most of the game. This was especially true on the ground, despite the 99 yards Rashard Mendenhall racked up. Mendenhall had three carries between 18 and 22 yards that accounted for more than half of his total production. Hopefully the current Steelers o-linemen can stay healthy the rest of the way so that they can gel as a unit. If not, Pittsburgh's Super Bowl hopes may be unrealistic.

One thing Pittsburgh's coordinator did to help his zone running game was create additional gaps to stretch the defense. He would line up two tight ends and a receiver to one side to force the defense to deal with more possible running lanes. A big thing with defenses is run fits. A run fit is what gap the defender is assigned to if the offense runs the ball.

There is always an A (between the center and guard), B (between the guard and tackle), and C (you should know where this is going by now) gap. When the offense has a tight end, there is another gap. By adding offensive players to the end of the line of scrimmage you add even more gaps, which means a defense has to adjust its run fits to fill those lanes. Now, not only are there more gaps for defenders to fill, but defenders are forced to play run fits that they aren't used to.

Figure 1: Inside Zone Slice

On first-and-10 with 12 minutes left in the second quarter, the Steelers came out in one of these formations. They had a single back with two tight ends to the right. The Bengals looked to have adjusted there down linemen a half man to the strength of the formation. By a half man, I mean that if the nose tackle was shaded to the center's left shoulder, he was now head up. And instead of a three-technique (outside shoulder of the right guard) the Bengals had a four I (inside shoulder of the right tackle). The defense also brought both linebackers to the line of scrimmage. This is to make sure their ends could fill their new gaps without having to worry about being hooked. The Steelers also brought Hines Ward in motion just outside the hipped tight end.

The Steelers called up an Inside Zone Slice to the right, and it worked wonderfully. The backside defensive end saw the left tackle (Max Starks) step inside and came down with him to maintain his new gap (the left B). The nose tackle did the same thing against the center (but taking the strongside A). Because the nose tackle was so quick to vacate the backside A gap, the left guard (Legursky) had a free run up to the Mike linebacker.

The front side guys kept their men on the line of scrimmage enough to allow Heath Miller to come across the formation and kick out the outside linebacker. Rashard Mendenhall saw everything develop, cut the play back, broke the safety's tackle (All plays have at least one unblocked guy near the point of attack, so Rashard Mendenhall gets paid a lot of money to make that one guy miss) and took it for a 20-yard gain. It was a well-schemed and perfectly executed running play. And a great way to end this week's column.


22 comments, Last at 17 Nov 2010, 3:15pm

6 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

A couple of minor nitpicks. The play went for 22 yards, not 20; and the LoS was the Steelers' own 12, not the opponent's 30-yard line (as depicted in the diagram) — that was a different Mendenhall run, which really did pick up 20 yards, out of a mirror formation: single back and two tight ends but this time on the left of the line.

Good article, though, and I applaud your decision to dump the Cowboys in favor of Pittsburgh.

2 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

The assumption was that the high profile first round pick struggled because he's a rookie and was possibly injured.

I will put forth another theory. Peko is really good. I haven't seen much of him this season, but I saw a lot of Bengals games last year, and he was really the fulcrum of their turnaround. He consistantly took on the double team and held his own. If you tried to block him with one man, he'd find himself 2 yards deep in the backfield. Peko isn't going to get a lot of sacks - he's strictly a "dirty work" guy. But he was so effective that he made Dhani Jones look competent at the Mike.

3 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

That was my thinking too. I didn't know how much of it was the Polamalu hair effect, where in an easily identifiable player is more memorable when they make a play, but he's always seemed to be a quality player to me.

5 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

All that being said, and I agree that Peko is good, it wasn't Pouncey's best game.

Is Word of Muth planning on looking at some games from last year? I think it would be an interesting comparison, but i also think it would help the writer see the differences between coach Z and coach Kugler.

The steelers haven't been a Power team for quite awhile, as far as I know.

4 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

Bronco Legursky is most valuable as a reserve, since he can play any of the interior spots and short yardage fullback. He was sort of promoted via injury, and there was talk of making him the full time starter at RG, but after the Saints game he was demoted again.

Also, we may see "Matt Spaeth: Left Tackle" before the year is out, which is really terrifying.

7 Maurkice Pouncey

I saw Pouncey play, and I have seen very few centers as quick as he is. Pouncey hit a DT on a double team, peeled off, and ran after a linebacker in pursuit and almost got him, all in about 2 seconds

12 Re: Maurkice Pouncey

In reply to by andy (not verified)

When I've kept an eye on Pouncey live, he's done a great job of getting to the second level. It'll be interesting to watch him against Wilfork Sunday.

Word of Muth has been a great column all year. To now have my favorite team thrown in is a lovely bonus. Thanks, Ben.

17 Re: Maurkice Pouncey

Uh-oh, Pouncey is going to be matched up on Wilfork?

What's the Vegas line on another Pittsburgh lineman getting injured?

8 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

I love that the ad in an article about 340lb o-linemen trying to run a zone blocking scheme is "1 tip for a tiny belly"

9 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

Definitely a fan of dropping the Cowboys from the column but are you committed to sticking with the Steelers for the rest of the season or is it possible to rotate in some new teams?

Dallas, Arizona, and Washington have the three fewest rushing attempts in the league and while I know both run blocking and pass blocking are important, none of these teams are really impressive up front. While the Steelers are better, by no means is their offensive line a strength for them.

It would be great to get a breakdown of some of the top offensive lines as a contrast to what we have heard so far. Oakland and some other teams have been good but KC seems like a logical choice considering they are practically leading the league in every rushing category (yards per game, yards per attempt, etc.).

13 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

As a steelers fan, I am interested in just having the steelers...but the above comment makes a whole lot of sense. The steelers O-line is not very good, some contrasting with the better lines in the league would be interesting, for sure.

10 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

Great analisis and explanation,Hope more of this from Pitt vs Pats is published

11 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

In the 4th quarter with a lead the Steelers ran a bunch of running plays picking up decent yardage. I was surprised, considering their injuries, reputation as poor run blockers, plus the game situation which should have let the defense know a run was coming.

With 9:05 remaining:
Mendenhall - 8 yards
Mendenhall - 3 yards
Mendenhall - 9 yards
Mendenhall - 18 yards
Mendenhall - 0 yards
Mendenhall - 4 yards
Mendenhall - 1 yard
Reed - Missed FG

3:59 remaining

So that is a pretty good performance I thought. Straight up the middle with power, good movement on the line. In that situation it was pretty impressive, and it probably won them the game.

14 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

Most of those plays were blocked poorly to very poorly, it was Mendenhall who sprung them after dancing in the backfield. I never appreciated #34 until this season, but he is doing very well. The line doesn't deserve much credit for the 4th quarter runs.

19 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

None of those plays were negative. I used the dash as a separator, my bad.
I disagree with the dancing. They were straight ahead plunges, with double teams on the down linemen (inside zone?). Same formation, similar blocking schemes as this one:
The linebackers were too slow to fill the holes, so Mendenhall came at them with a head of steam and added an extra yard, or two or three, on each run. On the 18 yard run in the video, it was more of the same, except that he had enough room to run around, rather than over, the defenders at the linebacker level.

18 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

True that I would have loved to have some more insight from the Chiefs, where Jamaal Charles gets all the praise for the running game, and I would have liked to know what happened with that OL .

20 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

Seconded. It would be really interesting to hear your (Ben's) take on the Thomas Jones vs. Jamal Charles issue: is part of Charles's apparent greater success due to the fact that the Chief's OL is better at pulling or preventing contain than they are at opening up a lane in the middle of the field? This could also shed some light on their poor 3rd/4th & short success rate, which seems at odds with their reputation as a great running team.

21 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

you should definitely check out the bills offensive line. i know that the tackles are, well, offensive, but i think that most of the league doesn't understand how good of a job our interior line plays.

check it out, man =) do yourself a favor and don't watch the entire game, though.

22 Re: Word of Muth: New Team in Town

I second this request. Especially since this week they played Detroit, a team with a reasonably good D-line. I remember Bills to have bad offensive line for quite some time, so I wonder what happened -- is this Chan Gailey's doing?