Word of Muth: Last Game, Best Game
by Ben Muth
It has always been my experience that the biggest game a team plays will be a microcosm of the entire season. Your star players make the key plays to keep you alive. Your biggest weakness becomes magnified under the intense pressure. And whether or not you win or lose, you can ultimately point to the outcome as obvious based on what has happened throughout the year. This is not the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nothing about the Super Bowl represented Pittsburgh's season as a whole. The Steelers' No. 1 ranked defense couldn't get stops or turnovers. Their star quarterback missed open receivers and failed to deliver late. Their worst unit, their offensive line, played the best game of anyone. And most importantly, the Steelers lost. The Steelers didn't do that very often this year.
This game completely debunks the theory that these big games represent the season as a whole. Unless you look at it from the Packers point of view: They didn't even try to run the ball, they overcame a bunch of injuries, their defense forced turnovers, and they could always fall back on Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. I guess the theory only holds true for winners.
But this column isn't about the Packers, it's about the Steelers offensive line. I thought they played great football. They played against one of the best defenses in the NFL and gave up one coverage sack. They averaged 5.5 yards a carry on the ground. If someone would have released a photo journal of me watching the Super Bowl (which is a guaranteed best seller) it would be called Shock and Awe. I was shocked they played so well, and a little in awe of how a much maligned and hurting group pulled together for an incredible performance. This game was the high-cholesterol equivalent of Timmy Smith going for 200 yards against the Broncos in a Super Bowl.
I think Doug Legursky needs to be commended for his performance on Sunday. A lot of the talk going into the game was about the loss of Maurkice Pouncey, and how that would lead to a big game for B.J. Raji. That was obviously not the case. Legursky did a great a job of not only sustaining his blocks, but also sustaining them on the line of scrimmage. The latter is the key part -- by limiting penetration, the line allowed the running backs to cut back a couple of times for big runs.
But when you play center, actually blocking people is only about half the job. You are also responsible for sending your fellow blockers in the right directions. It certainly seemed like Pittsburgh's line was on the same page all evening. The only time I can remember a truly free rusher was when Ramon Foster failed to see Sam Shields on a B gap blitz in the middle of the fourth quarter. That wasn't Legursky's fault though, as Foster was heading in the right direction before a linebacker caught his eye and brought him needlessly inside. Other than that small hiccup, the Steelers were in position all night.
Legursky played well in relief, but the stars of this game were the tackles (cue spit take). Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott put on a clinic. Adams was tremendous in the running game, opening up holes on the right side of the line all game. He was able to get more movement than I would have guessed, and he got up to the second level more than I've seen this season. I cannot think of a lot of running plays where Adams wouldn't have graded out favorably. Scott was effective in the running game as well, he just did so in a less glamorous fashion. The left tackle was on the backside of most running plays, but just like Legursky, he did a good job of keeping his defender on the line of scrimmage, to allow any cutbacks.
As nice as it is that these two were so good on the ground, NFL tackles get paid to protect the quarterback. Adams and Scott did exactly that, allowing just the one coverage sack between them.
Adams wasn't perfect: He did allow a couple of pressures, but considering he was matched up with Clay Matthews so much, he more than held his own. Matthews was asked to spy a lot, but when he was asked to get pressure, he rarely did. Scott was simply dominant. I cannot remember a single time where he allowed any pressure (that's what the comment section is for). Scott was tremendously patient in pass protection and never over-extended himself. He kept a good distance with his hands (meaning he punched at the right time to keep defenders away from his pads) and never seemed to be in trouble. Scott played well last week, but he took it to another level this week. He was so good that I suspect Al Davis is offering a second-rounder and a $10 million signing bonus to bring him to Oakland.
The guards weren't as good as the tackles or Legursky. Ramon Foster was a big part of those holes to the right side. I thought Adams was better, but Foster certainly deserves his due. The right guard wasn't as good in pass protection. He missed Shields on the blitz I mentioned earlier, and he was called for a hold on that same drive (Joe Buck insisted it was Adams, but the ref and I agree that it was Foster). His fellow guard Chris Kemoeatu was by far the weakest link in the chain.
Kemoeatu made a couple of costly mistakes early in the game that put Pittsburgh in a hole. On the first drive of the game, Kemoeatu was beat on a draw on second-and-4. His man didn't make the tackle, but he did gum up the works enough to cause a five-yard loss and a third-and-long later in the drive.
The biggest mistake for Kemoeatu came on the pick-six. His hands were too wide, which allowed him to get bull-rushed into the backfield. The rest of the protection was good enough to allow Roethlisberger to side-step the rusher, but Big Ben thought he could make a play down the field. Roethlisberger tried to make the deep throw but was hit, and the rest is history. After that Kemoeatu was decent enough, especially when he was pulling (except for his obligatory one stupid penalty).
Before we go into Rashard Mendenhall's fumble, I wanted to mention the tight ends. Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth had a hell of a game blocking. They totally handled Green Bay's outside linebackers in the running game and allowed Mendenhall to get outside on multiple occasions. Miller in particular was impressive against Matthews. To put it bluntly, Miller owned Matthews the majority of the game. With the exception of a questionable holding call, I can't remember Miller losing to Matthews on a running play.
A lot of people (most notably, Peter King) felt that the Mendenhall fumble was the biggest play in the game. I disagree with this sentiment, but it certainly was the biggest play of the fourth quarter. Now, there's never any excuse for fumbling the ball, but Mendenhall wasn't put in a very good position by the play. It was a weird play that I hadn't seen the Steelers run before, and it certainly made the comeback a lot more difficult.
|Figure 1: Mendenhall's fumble|
Green Bay came out in 4-4 personnel and lined up in what was basically a 5-3. The three-technique was to the tight end side (the offense's left). The basic scheme was a down/down/kick scheme (everyone blocks down, and you kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage), which is a variation of Power. This play was unique because the center was the puller, and therefore, he was the kick-out man as opposed to the backside guard.
I have two theories on this particular blocking scheme. It was either a change in scheme made at the line of scrimmage because Legursky wasn't sure he could block back on the three-technique to his left, or it was a poorly designed play. The former means that Kemoeatu was supposed to pull, but they kept him back to block the defensive tackle, which meant the center had to pull. Because I think the Steelers are well-coached, I'm going to believe the former.
Anyway, both down blocks went fine, but Legursky got wrong-armed on the kick-out by Ryan Pickett. Getting wrong-armed means that the defender is able to rip through you with his far arm and get inside leverage. This usually bows the blocker back and makes the runner bounce outside. Here, it meant that Legursky got in the way of the fullback and prevented him from getting a block on Clay Matthews. This wall of humanity met Mendenhall, and he lost the ball when Matthews put his helmet right on it.
If the decision to have the center pull was made at the line of scrimmage, I still wouldn't blame Legursky entirely. Certain plays just don't work against certain fronts. Asking your center to snap the ball, pull, and kick out a 300-pound five-technique is just too much. He's never going to get much of a block on this play. I wonder if, after the safety they gave up to the Jets in the regular season, they changed their scheme to allow the center to pull. Against New York, they pulled the guard against a similar look, and Jason Taylor knifed in for the deciding defensive points. Here they tried to pull the center to shore up the backside, and it was just as disastrous. You have to wonder if there was a way to get out of this play once they saw the defensive front.
That concludes this season's weekly editions of Word of Muth. I plan on doing offseason columns every three or four weeks. Right now the plan is to use a mish-mash of formats -- another Q&A, entire columns dedicated to a single scheme versus different looks, maybe an interview. If you have any suggestions please leave them in the comment section, or e-mail them to me. Also, be sure to follow my new Twitter account, @FO_wordofmuth.