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.