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

Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun

Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Steelers pulled themselves out of a three-game nose dive, including an embarrassing loss to an awful Raiders team, with a win at home against the Patriots last Sunday. It was a big, possibly season-saving win for a team that absolutely needed it. The Steelers never trailed in the game.

Like all wins, it was a team effort, but the offensive line was, in my opinion, the biggest part of the victory. They protected Ben Roethlisberger well (two sacks, neither of which was really their fault) and they cleared the way for 142 yards from Jaylen Samuels. It was a great overall performance, but what I was most impressed with was Pittsburgh's ability to consistently chew up yards on the ground from the gun. Their shotgun run game was great all night.

via Gfycat

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I haven't watched Pittsburgh enough this year to know if this is a staple play or a wrinkle they threw in for New England, but they ran the hell out of this concept Sunday. It's just a toss counter (I remember the Steve Spurrier's '90s Florida teams running this a lot), but running it from the gun really seems to add another dimension to the misdirection. Pittsburgh ran this play four or five times and always gained at least 4 yards on it.

On this play, I think Ramon Foster (73) does a great job at left guard. That's a long time to hold a block and not allow any penetration on a slow-developing play. Alejandro Villanueva (78) at left tackle also has to hold his block for a long time, but I think this play is a little easier on tackles because they really just can't get beat inside. Foster can't get beat anywhere. This is a well-executed play and a really neat concept that the Steelers ran well all game.

via Gfycat

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This is another man concept run with a puller. This time it's right guard David DeCastro (66) leading the way. DeCastro does a nice job of reading the block of tight end Jesse James (81) -- if the defensive end (Dont'a Hightower, 54) had stayed outside, DeCastro would have turned up inside -- and getting outside to make a block. I know his man technically makes the tackle, but anytime you make the defender turn around and retreat from you so he can make a tackle 15 yards downfield, that counts as an effective block.

James at tight end is also really good here. He stays balanced with his initial footwork and just lets the defender declare a gap. When the defender peaks inside, you can see James try to torque him into the gap to make DeCastro's read easier.

via Gfycat

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On this play, the Steelers just got the Patriots in a bad personnel grouping and pounded them. New England has three DL bodies and two LB bodies (a dime package) to defend the Steelers' 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end). The Steelers are able to get center Maurkice Pouncey (53) right onto Patrick Chung (23), a safety playing linebacker, and that's a colossal mismatch. And this wasn't some two-minute situation where New England would have been fine conceding some yards on the ground. This was the first play of the fourth quarter in a game Pittsburgh was leading.

The thing that makes this play go, though, other than having more big bodies than New England on the field, is once again Ramon Foster. He reaches a slightly inside-shaded defensive tackle (Adam Butler, 70). Chung had one A-gap and he had no chance against Pouncey, but if Butler could have held his A-gap, this probably would have been just a 4- or 5-yard gain. But Foster wins this play and creates a huge hole for the back to run through.

via Gfycat

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This was the shortest gain of the plays I highlighted but this was on the Steelers' final drive of the game when New England was most focused on stopping the run. This is a sweep where Pouncey at center pulls instead of the back-side guard like you usually see. The reason I highlighted it, though, was DeCastro obliterating Chung. As teams start to play more and more "hybrid" type players in nickel and dime groupings, it's going to be up to offensive linemen to remind people that "hybrid" is usually code for "defensive back pretending to be a linebacker." Teams with the offensive line talent to push these little guys around are going to be the teams that can continue to use the running game as an effective tool no matter what personnel they're running from.

Like I said, I was really impressed with Pittsburgh's offensive line throughout the game. They weren't perfect, but I thought they were the deciding factor in the matchup against the New England defense. Even the two sacks weren't really on the offensive line. One was a total coverage sack, and the other was on the running back.

via Gfycat

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I know I just said that this sack was on the running back -- and it is, because he doesn't block his guy, and then his guy makes the sack. But DeCastro can't leave that inside hand out there like that. I know it seems like you're helping the back out by slowing the blitzer down a bit, but it just confuses him (and opens up the possibility of a chop block), particularly if the back hasn't played a ton. Again, the back (in this case, Jaylen Samuels, 38) has to block his guy, but DeCastro didn't make it any easier.

via Gfycat

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I didn't want to end on a negative play when the Steelers did so many positive things on Sunday. If you're going to run empty packages, you have to be able to pick up defensive line twists, and Pittsburgh looks like they can do that. Regular readers of this column know how often I talk about flattening the penetrator on twists and stunts. DeCastro does a great job of that here. His man (Trey Flowers, 98) is crashing inside and aiming for Pouncey's hip. DeCastro blunts the forward momentum and shoves him all the way across the opposite guard's face without allowing any penetration. He does that while still staying balanced enough to come back on the looper (Butler). Great play.


6 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2018, 10:33pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun

First thought on watching 3rd gif: "Man, that's a sweet reach block by Foster."

Second thought on watching 3rd gif: "Oh my god, I can identify a sweet reach block. Thank you, Ben!"

2 Re: Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun


Patriots fans are often critical of the Front Seven, but what can they do against the run when the Front Seven is only a Front Five?

The personnel choices made it seem like the Pats were intentionally going soft vs. the run in order to keep Brown, Smiith-Shuster, et. al. in check. But the run D was so bad I don't think the plan can be said to have worked. (Yes, the Pats had a couple shots late in the game to tie it, and yes, the offense didn't play particularly well, either, but I don't think it's a particularly good idea to play a run D that's so soft it gives up 6 yards per carry.)

(And no, Chung vs. Pouncey shouldn't be an idea on anybody's chalkboard. Yikes!)

The O-line play of Pittsburgh was impressive on Sunday. Other aspects were less impressive - the Steelers still make too many boneheaded mistakes. They ought to win their division but are in real trouble if they have to host the Chargers in the wild card round.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun

I know the trend is to bargain shop for o-linemen, either in terms of draft capital (hello, Vikings fans) or in cap space for free agents, but. fer' the luv of Joe Gibbs, you just have so much more schematic flexibility when you have confidence that opponents will be blocked.

5 Re: Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun

I'm a Raiders fan. Light years ago now, when Reggie started our rebuild by buying the best OL available, I was like "yeah, we're gonna be fine". And for a while, we were.

That's all I got. I should just go to bed. This is so very not gonna be OK.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun

Re: the last GIF

Is there anything that can give an OL a clue that a stunt might be coming PRE-SNAP, or do they just have to feel it when it is happening where a DL is obviously moving "out" of his rush lane?

6 Re: Word of Muth: Steel Shotgun

Why is the illustrated sack on the RB and not the OL? DeCastro can see the LB coming early, lets him go and ends up blocking nobody