Word of Muth: One-Game Season

Word of Muth: One-Game Season
Word of Muth: One-Game Season
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Pittsburgh Steelers' win against Baltimore was a microcosm of their 2010 season. There were injuries to the offensive line. Their defense forced turnovers. Ben Roethlisberger got hit a lot, but stayed in the game and played well. Rashard Mendenhall's numbers looked better than they seemed. And finally, one of their wide receivers made a big play down the field to win the game.

When ESPN does the NFL Yearbook for the Steelers, they should just show this game. Really the only thing that was missing was Roethlisberger missing the first quarter of the game for inappropriate restroom behavior. (That seemed like the nicest way to say it until I read it back, but screw it. The guy was a creep.) Basically this game shows that the Steelers have an identity, and it's led to a lot of wins.

Their identity is a simple one: a juggernaut defense with a really good quarterback, big play skill players, and a really bad offensive line. The Steelers' offensive line kept up their end of this identity against the Ravens. Roethlisberger was sacked and harassed throughout game. Mendenhall had a mediocre day on the ground, and looked so hesitant that Peter King called him out in MMQB this week. In Mendenhall's defense, it's easy to be hesitant when you are looking for something that isn't there (a hole). Pittsburgh suffered injuries or illnesses to both tackles, but they looked bad no matter what lineup was up front.

Maurkice Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu played the best of the seven Steelers who saw action. Pouncey played really well, and perhaps the best he has all year. The rookie was good in pass protection for the vast majority of the game, providing excellent depth to the pocket (centers and guards are responsible for keeping defensive tackles as close to the line of scrimmage as possible to provide plenty of depth for the quarterback to step into). Pouncey also drew a defensive holding call that wasn't in the secondary, perhaps the only penalty rarer than offensive pass interference (though defensive hands to the face is a contender). He still can't block Haloti Ngata, but he was rarely matched up against him.

Kemoeatu was good as well, despite the monumentally dumb penalty on the final touchdown. The big left guard was the only other offensive lineman who played what anyone would call a good game for Pittsburgh.

With those two out of the way, we get to the rest of the unit. Ramon Foster managed to play poorly at two positions this week, showing off his versatility. Foster played so poorly I'm worried he caught whatever Flozell Adams had (although it's possible Foster's play was what made Adams ill, we could have a chicken/egg situation). It didn't seem to matter if it was a pass play or a running play, Foster's man was going to be in the backfield and causing trouble.

The poor play at tackle could certainly be excused, but it wasn't noticeably worse than his play at guard. He was out-quicked, out-muscled, and out-finessed all game. It was the kind of performance that could get you cut in the preseason.

Adams was apparently violently ill and eventually had to be removed. I will say this for the veteran, he certainly looked ill. Adams, who has never been confused with Bob Hayes, looked even slower than normal on Saturday. He gave up a hit on inside move to Terrell Suggs that made him look like he was wearing concrete cleats. On the sack/fumble/touchdown, Terrell Suggs simply ran around the plodding Adams to make the play. Big Ben held onto the ball a little long on this play but still, Adams looked very lethargic.

On top of all this, Adams' run blocking was unusually poor, an area he's done well in all season. That simply wasn't the case this week, as the veteran tackle rarely got much movement in the ground game. Hopefully the poor performance has more to do with disease than it does with wearing down from old age as the season has advanced. If not, Pittsburgh could be in trouble.

Whereas Adams played about as bad as he has all season, Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex played just like they have on any other week. Unfortunately, neither has distinguished himself on the field this season. I don't want to go into too much detail here, as I feel like I have criticized both men enough and have accepted that they are who they are at this point. Neither has pass-blocked effectively, and I'll leave it at that. Scott left the game due to injury -- the second time this year he has injured himself giving up a tackle for loss -- but is expected to play next week. At this point, I don't see much of a difference between him and Essex.

Figure 1: Baltimore's blitz

Since I've done a lot of Steelers games this year, and they didn't do anything that really jumped out at me, I figured it would be more fun to break down a Baltimore blitz. It was third-and-12 early in the third quarter when Baltimore dialed up a very creative blitz. The Steelers lined up in a shotgun formation with a tight end to the right and the back offset to the left. The Ravens came out in what was a variation of a dime 3-4 (a 3-4 where you replace two linebackers with defensive backs). They had a nose tackle and two five-technique defensive ends (head up over the offensive tackle). All three of these defensive linemen had their hands off the ground, but would still be counted as down defensive linemen.

Outside of the defensive ends, the Ravens had two standup defenders on the line of scrimmage. This type of look, often called double wide or double edge has become increasingly popular on third downs out of 3-4 defense. The goal of the look is make offensive linemen pass set much wider than usual.

For instance, if you are sliding into the look, the center has to go to the defensive end, the guard has to go to a man outside the tackle, and the tackle has to kick past two defenders to get to the widest rusher. It can take every offensive lineman out of his normal pass set and comfort zone. What makes the Ravens alignment unusual is that they are showing a double edge look to each side.

With both their edges being threatened at the snap, the Steelers have 2 Jet protection called. We've talked about 2 Jet in the past, but the basic premise is that you slide the offensive line to the left and the back blocks to the right. The only exception is the right tackle, who has the defensive end man to man. In this case, 3 Jet would have been a better choice, but the way the Ravens lined up, it is impossible to tell which way the pressure is coming from.

So the Steelers slide their line to the left, where the Ravens drop everyone but Suggs. Now the Steelers have four guys on one. On the right side the defensive end crashes down inside to fill the rush lane of the dropping nose tackle. Outside of him the safety and linebacker blitz, running a twisting stunt.

The twist proved to be unnecessary (although it is tough to pick up if you are sliding towards it) as Mendenhall was the only blocker left for the two defenders, Ray Lewis and Haruki Nakamura. Mendenhall took Lewis (the right choice since he was the inside man, and he's Ray Lewis) and left Nakamura a free run to the Big Ben. The greatness of the stunt isn't that it worked (well, Ravens fans probably think that's the great thing about the stunt) but rather that it is insanely hard to pick up and only uses four rushers.


18 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2011, 4:25pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

Hey Ben--great article, but use spell check (backss--in parenthesis beside the diagram; I think there was another grammar error, too). Stanford grads are better than this.
A real question, though--who was the TE (Miller?) supposed to block, or did he immediately release into the pattern without blocking or even delaying (like RB's do many times)?

2 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

Say what you will about Mendenhall, but I don't think he was very tentative. He got the second TD on all on his own, as the primary hole was filled with three Baltimore defenders whom he faked out, then bulled through two more to get into the end zone. One of the toughest TD runs I've seen this year.

3 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

Between Word of Muth and Walkthrough, if my boss ever charts my productivity, Thursdays will be very difficult to explain.

So if you're a QB and you see a doublewide setup like this, what's to prevent you from audibling into, say, a middle screen? Or some sort of quick crossing route? Or simply a draw play right up through the 0 or 1 holes?

8 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

A draw play would be good, but it was third and twelve in the game when Ben saw that look, so he may not have wanted to run the ball against any look. Screen are tough to audible into (unless it's just a little smoke screen to a wideout), because they usually have long play calls and a lot of working parts. It's tough get the name out so everyone can hear it and get adjusted to the call. As far as routes go, I'm simply not that familiar with how to change routes,it seems usually try to keep the same routes on a play and change the protection. Probably because offensive linemen are much closer to the QB and can actually hear the QB. It doesn't really matter that Pitt was at ho,e, because when you go over audible mechanics they are designed to get you out of bad plays in the worst condidtions (on the road) so it's tough to get audibles out to the receivers without hand signs, and hand signs take a lot of time, which is why you usually only see them in the two minute drill when teams are going no huddle.

4 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

Ben, what did you think of that article (posted in extra points last week) that claimed that, based on the analysis of every pass play over the season, that Scott was basically tied with Pouncey as the most valuable PIT OL, worth about 700 yards (!) more than Adams this year?

7 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

I strongly disagree. First off, the Steelers are far more likely to chip or slide to Scott's side. Not only that but Scott has to lead the league in times where he is technically still blocking his man, but is doing so a foot away from the QB causing general discomfort. I was shocked to see the results of that study.

10 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams are masters of disaster avoidance. I'm not saying there aren't disasters, but like you just mentioned, there are a lot more plays where they are just a step away from disaster. Scott seems to be driven within a step or two of Roethlisberger on most pass plays. Adams seems to be beat around the edge just as much, but he often manages to time that last pop to drive his man past Roethlisberger.

9 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

"That seemed like the nicest way to say it until I read it back, but screw it. The guy IS a creep."


11 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

Ben, in an interview I read on the Steelers Lounge blog (http://www.steelerslounge.com/2011/01/craig-wolfley-big-sean-kugler-fan/) Craig Wolfley talked about a variation on zone blocking the Steelers have been running where the initial step backwards is replaces with a forward "power base step."

I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the positive and negatives of the scheme. Is it something you've noticed? Does it suit the Steelers larger, slower line?

12 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

"Ramon Foster managed to play poorly at two positions this week, showing off his versatility. Foster played so poorly I'm worried he caught whatever Flozell Adams had (although it's possible Foster's play was what made Adams ill, we could have a chicken/egg situation)."

I've been loving the column for its content all season long, but that had me laughing pretty hard!

13 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

And to think we won the game! I'd love to hear your take on a good o line, just so I can calibrate this.

14 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

"Ramon Foster managed to play poorly at two positions this week, showing off his versatility."

That is a great line. Pretty much sums up the Steelers Oline for the last 3 years.

17 Re: Word of Muth: One-Game Season

I believe he means that if you saw the numbers after the game, you'd have a better impression of Mendenhall than you would have if you had watched the game.

Maybe it's better stated this way : Rashard Mendenhall's numbers after the game looked better than his running seemed during the game.