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What a Debacle: Steelers O-Line Falls Apart Against Eagles

Sep 22, 2008 – 12:31 AM
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JJ Cooper

JJ Cooper %BloggerTitle%

If you pay attention to history at all, you probably know how a blitzkreig works. The idea is that putting pressure on your opponent quicker than he can make decisions, you stay a step ahead and basically force him into paralysis of inaction because he can never make decisions quick enough.

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson clearly knows what blitzkreig is. His Eagles defense stayed a step ahead of the Steelers offense all night. And in the process, he made every Steeler fan realize that the team's worst nightmare before the season began has just been in hibernation for two weeks.

After giving up nine sacks in a disastrous performance against the Eagles, the Steelers offensive line had no excuses, but this wasn't a case of players getting physically beaten as much as it was the Steelers being outsmarted by a defense. Philadelphia blitzed from every angle, but often Steelers offensive lineman were caught blocking air, as a linebacker or defensive back would take a step or two towards the line in a fake blitz before dropping into coverage. And while the Steelers offensive lineman was standing their confused, another blitzer would be running free into the backfield.
On their way to the Super Bowl in 2005, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau found ways to take advantage of the Colts blocking scheme. Indianapolis asked its guards to pull outside to pick up blitzing linebackers, but only after first checking inside to make sure there wasn't an inside blitz. That scheme didn't work against the speed of Joey Porter, so LeBeau took advantage of it on the way to an upset victory.

The Steelers just had the same thing done to them. It wasn't something as simple as a poor decision to pull guards to block speed rushers on the outside, but Johnson was able to consistently figure out ways to bring blitzers completely unblocked.

NUMBER OF RUSHERS
Rushers No. of rushes Sacks
3 4 1
4 19 2
5 6 4
6 11 2
7 4 0
I counted eight different pass plays where an Eagles pass rusher came through completely unblocked. It's a credit to Ben Roethlisberger that he avoided the sack on five of those plays. He actually was credited with four rushes for the day, all of which came on plays where he was dodging rushers, so he could have easily been sacked 12 times.

Clearly Johnson figured out some weaknesses in the Steelers' blocking scheme, or the decision-making ability of the Steelers' linemen, as the Steelers struggled to block everyone even when there were more blockers than pass rushers. Johnson used plenty of overload blitzes just like the Steelers do, but they had even more success with them than the Steelers have had.

The weakest link the Steelers' pass protection came up the middle. Justin Hartwig found a pair of linebackers lined up over him on a consistent basis in passing situations. He had to quickly figure out who to block, and he wasn't up to the task.

SACKS ALLOWED
Player Sacks
Justin Hartwig 3
Willie Colon
2
Marvel Smith
1.5
Chris Kemoeatu
1
Heath Miller 1
Mewelde Moore
.5
Hartwig gave up three sacks by my count, was responsible for the pass rusher who forced the intentional grounding call for a safety and also gave up 1.33 hurries. Willie Colon gave up a pair of sacks, including one on a play where he was beaten off the ball, and couldn't even stop a sack by tackling Darren Howard. Kendall Simmons, normally the weak link of the line, was the one linemen who got out of the day without giving up a sack, although that doesn't mean he didn't have some miscues as well.

Some may think that the Steelers would have been better off with Byron Leftwich under center, as he moved the team in the final minutes, but he also was facing a somewhat different defense. And don't think of blaming Roethlisberger for not getting rid of the ball quickly enough--Roethlisberger either got rid of the ball or was dodging his first pass rusher less than three seconds after the snap on 31 of his 37 pass plays. Four of Roethlisberger's sacks came on plays where the first rusher was on him in less than two seconds.

As far as the difference defenses the two QBs faced, when Roethlisberger was dropping back, the Eagles rushed five or more on 18 of 37 plays (48.6 percent). Leftwich faced five or more rushers only three times in eight pass plays (37.5 percent). He was sacked once, did complete a 21-yard pass on one seven-man blitz and threw an incomplete pass when blitzed.

I'll have a lot more about the offensive line debacle over the upcoming week, but the Steelers' opponents just got the blueprint for beating the Steelers. The last time the Steelers offensive line was embarrassed like this was just a year ago against the Giants. But this thumping most resembled the midseason shutout loss to the Ravens in 2006. Like this one, the Ravens piled up nine sacks, and like this game, Pittsburgh had no answers for the defensive onslaught.
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