Grading the Line: Steelers Look Adequate In '09 Debut
It's business as usual this year, which means that the team's biggest concern is whether Trai Essex is ready to be a starter at guard and can a year of playing together make a big difference for the rest of the projected starters. We got our first glimpse against the Cardinals last Thursday night. So what did they show?
Before beginning, it's worth nothing that all of the following is based on rewatching the game. Much of what is happening is readily apparent, but there are some assignments, especially in blitz pickup, where not knowing the play call and the blocking rules makes it difficult to determine who was at fault, which will be noted in the writeups.
• The first-team Steelers line didn't look a whole lot different than it did last year, which is to say that they struggled to open holes for the running game while showing inconsistent protection in the passing game. Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked, but he was hit once and pressured on one other play -- both of which came after Max Starks blew his blocks. Defensive end Calais Campbell gave Starks fits with his speed to the outside on pass plays and with a quick step to the inside on running plays.
• Chris Kemoeatu probably had the best game among the first-team offensive linemen, as he consistently drove his man off the line and looked pretty good pulling. Trai Essex didn't get dominated by Darnell Dockett, which was good news. But when he was asked to pull, he looked like a tackle trying to figure out how to play guard. He struggled with the pull blocks and also stood around blocking no one on a play where he was asked to go out and block a linebacker.
• With Justin Hartwig out, Doug Legursky got the start. It's a credit to him to say that his evening was absolutely unmemorable. He didn't destroy anyone, but he also didn't have any bad blocks that stood out. The same could generally be said for Willie Colon, although the right tackle did give up the outside edge on one pass play -- but Starks was getting beaten worse, so Ben Roethlisberger had already tucked and run by the time Colon's man got into the backfield. Colon was also flagged for a illegal formation penalty, continuing his streak of being one of the more penalized offensive linemen in the league.
• If you're wondering about Rashard Mendenhall's running, check this solid writeup over at Post Game Heroes, but when it came to blocking, he blew a blitz pickup that led to a blitzer getting a free shot at Charlie Batch on a third-down pass. Mendenhall appeared to be suckered by the linebacker who was assigned Mendenhall. Mendenhall started to swing out as if he was going to go out into the flat for a pass because he thought there was no blitzer, but he didn't commit to it. That allowed the linebacker to blitz, forcing Batch to get rid of the ball too quickly.
• Rookie center A.Q. Shipley is excellent at keeping his head up, handing off assignments and picking up stunts in pass protection. Twice he looked like a veteran as he slid over to pick up a new man on a stunt. He also showed that he could get to the second level to block linebackers, but he also showed his weakness, as a couple of times he made an initial blow, but then lost his man because he couldn't stick the block (blame his short arms). It's also worth noting that Shipley was driven back a step or two at the snap on two different plays, although in both cases he didn't lose his man.
• It's only one game, but tight end David Johnson sure looks like a better blocker than Matt Spaeth. When Johnson came in, he showed that he likes to block--he had a botched block where he was driven down the line into the hole by an outside linebacker and another where he stuck his block but didn't manage to turn his man, but he made up for it with some excellent blocks. Generally he just did a good job of driving his feet and maintaining his blocks to the whistle. His best block was a thing of beauty. On a first down run in the third quarter, Johnson helped block down on a defensive end to get some movement, then slid off to pick up the linebacker, eventually putting the linebacker on his back. Johnson's not a finished product as a blocker--he struggled much more when he was asked to block a man heads-up at the snap than when he had a chance to get a step or two of momentum before landing his initial blow.
• On the Steelers' first touchdown Tank Summers laid a nice block to help spring Isaac Redmond (who is Summers competition for a roster spot). On that same play Kraig Urbik made one of his best blocks with some serious push on a Cardinals' lineman. Urbik's play got better as the night went along (and the caliber of lineman he was blocking dropped). His biggest strength appears to surprisingly be his mobility. He was at his best when he was finding a linebacker and sealing him off from flowing to the play.
• Tony Hills generally did an adequate job. Nothing more, but thankfully nothing less. He was beaten to the outside on one pass play for a quarterback pressure, but generally he just kept his head down and stayed unnoticed. He didn't blow people off the ball, but he also didn't get driven backwards either. He looked a little better at left tackle, his natural position, than right tackle. He, Jason Capizzi and Jeremy Parquet all split time between both tackle spots in an attempt to find out who can serve as a swing tackle if Essex moves up to the starting lineup.
• Capizzi had a couple of nice blocks in the running game showing solid power, but he did fail to release from a double-team to pick up a blitzer late in the game. Parquet was probably the worst of the second-team linemen. He allowed a pair of pressures on speed rushes and was also singled out for two false starts. Alex Stepanovich got to play in the final minutes, but he didn't really get enough snaps to make an evaluation on him.