Between the Lines: Steelers O-Line Confused by Browns
But that didn't matter. Three different Browns recorded their first career sacks against a Steelers offensive line that looked confused all night. On four of the eight sacks, Cleveland managed to get a rusher to Roethlisberger nearly untouched. On two of the sacks the blitzer was completely unblocked.But the Browns didn't do that by sending kamikaze seven-man blitzes. Cleveland never sent more than five rushers on any of the eight sacks and they picked up two of the sacks while only sending three. Instead, they made a veteran offensive line that has started the same front five for all but one game this year look like a pickup group of replacement players.
Sack #1: Third and 1, 10:59 1Q.
The NFL Network commentators and analysts made a lot out of the Steelers' decision to come out in a passing formation on their first third and one of the game, but that's been Bruce Arians approach for much of the season. Pittsburgh came out with one receiver to the left and a bunch formation with two receivers and tight end Heath Miller to the right. The Steelers did have Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield as well to help with blitz pickup.
Cleveland didn't try to fool anyone. They lined up with five defensive linemen/linebackers at the line of scrimmage and sent all five of them. But you don't have to fool anyone when you can win the head-to-head battles at the line of scrimmage. Corey Williams faked a rush to center Justin Hartwig's left, then cut back to the right immediately getting a step on the center. From there, he had a clear run to the quarterback. Roethlisberger's first target appeared to be tight end Heath Miller, who tried to use Hines Ward and Mike Wallace's routes to clear out room just beyond the first-down marker. It would have worked well if Cleveland was playing zone, but against a matchup man, Miller was well covered and by the time he started to look for his next receiver, Williams was in his face. Blame this one on Justin Hartwig.
Sack # 2: Third and 3, 5:45 1Q.
Once again on third and relatively short, Pittsburgh took away any pretense of a run option. This time the Steelers emptied the backfield, flanking out Mendenhall and Miller as wide receivers in a five wide receiver look. Cleveland again sent five rushers. With five offensive linemen, the Steelers had the right number of blockers, but it's nearly impossible for an offensive lineman to account for a cornerback blitz coming from the outside, so Pittsburgh was left with one man coming unblocked. A corner blitz falls to the quarterback and receivers to recognize it. On a third and short play like this one, the usual response is to throw to the man who was left uncovered by the corner blitz. That was Mendenhall, but he didn't cut his route off, and instead ran to the sideline. That left him looking away from Roethlisberger as Hank Poteat came unblocked. By the time Mendenhall was looking back at Roethlisberger, Big Ben was already trying to dodge Poteat. It didn't work, and Poteat pulled him down for a second drive-killing sack. Blame this one on the play-call and miscommunication between the quarterback and receiver.
Sack #3: Third and 7, 15:00 2Q
The first three Browns sacks all came on third down, killing any chance the Steelers had of developing a rhythm. Once again Pittsburgh went with an empty backfield as Pittsburgh put four wide receivers (including Mendenhall and Miller) on the right and Santonio Holmes by himself on the left.
Cleveland sent only four rushers, all of which were standing at the line of scrimmage at the snap. So there was no reason for any confusion, but Willie Colon sure looked confused. No one was lined up head-up over Colon, but rookie linebacker Marcus Bernard was lined up with a hand on the ground to Colon's outside. At the snap Colon looked inside to block, where there was no one, leaving Bernard to run free for a way too easy first career sack. Roethlisberger never had a chance as Bernard was on him in just over two seconds. Blame Colon and confusion.
Sack #4: Second and 12, 5:29 2Q
Pittsburgh goes with three wide receivers, a single back and Heath Miller lined up on the right side of the line as a traditional tight end. Cleveland goes with a nickel package with two down linemen, four linebackers, all of whom are up at the line, and three cornerbacks all up in a pre-snap look of man press coverage. Just before the snap the Browns also walk the strong safety up to the line of scrimmage on Miller's side, so Cleveland has seven men at the line. With seven men at the line, Pittsburgh does not have the blockers to block everyone if Cleveland sends an all-out blitz (Heath Miller has been assigned a pass route, not a blocking responsibility). But it's unlikely Cleveland will send all seven. The key is for Pittsburgh to determine quickly which rushers are coming.
At the snap, strong safety Abram Elam comes hard on a blitz from the Steelers right. But running back Rashard Mendenhall heads to his left to pick up outside linebacker Jason Trusnik, who appears to be rushing from the Steelers left. When Trusnik quickly bails on his fake blitz and drops into zone coverage, Mendenhall is left blocking no one. The Browns have also done a good job of disguising their coverage. What had appeared to be press man coverage is actually a Cover 3 zone.
On the other side, center Justin Hartwig saw Elam coming off the corner and very quickly hurried outside to pick him up. It's a difficult assignment to ask a center to beat a safety in a race to the corner, but there's one bigger problem--right tackle Willie Colon has already picked up Elam. So Pittsburgh ends up blocking a safety with two 300+ pounders. Understandably they manhandle Elam, but Corey Williams is left unblocked to manhandle Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger deserves a little blame as well. Miller had flared out two yards downfield on the kind of route that works well as a dumpoff. As Roethlisberger's right foot hit at the end of his five-step drop, Miller appears to be open and Roethlisberger looks right at him. But he pump fakes, brings the ball back down and starts to look for something downfield at the time Williams wraps him up. Blame this one on miscommunication, although Roethlisberger didn't help out his struggling offensive line.
Sack #5: Third and 19, 5:06 2Q
Yep, it's the next play. Cleveland has just gotten its fourth sack of the first half by confusing the Steelers offensive line. They'll get the six one without even looking for a sack. Pittsburgh keeps the same personnel grouping as the play before, but this time Heath Miller flanks out as an H-back off of Colon's right hip. Cleveland goes to a quarters package with one down linemen, three linebackers and seven defensive backs. Only three Browns are lined up anywhere near the line of scrimmage, making it quite apparent that Cleveland is playing to allow Pittsburgh a short pass, but nothing that will allow them anywhere close to the 19 yards the Steelers need.
At the snap, the Browns send the three pass rushers at the line of scrimmage and no one else. On the outside the two cornerbacks man up on Mike Wallace and Santonio Holmes while Hines Ward and Heath Miller are left to run free--as Roethlisberger hit his back foot on his seven step drop no one is around Ward or Miller, but then neither of them are 15 yards from the first-down marker either.
To try to help out the offensive line, Mendenhall helps left tackle Max Starks double team the Browns rusher coming off the Steelers' left edge. On the right side, Heath Miller appears to attempt to chip Marcus Bernard to help out right tackle Willie Colon. Chips are thought to help slow down a pass rusher attempting to get to the edge on a speed rush. But in watching many, many sacks over the past four years I've noticed they also sometimes have an unwanted side effect--they get the offensive tackle out of his normal rhythm. Tackles are used to firing out to make sure that a speed rusher can't get outside of them at the snap of the ball. But when they are being helped by a back or tight end with a chip block, they often end up a step slow in getting to the corner because they have to wait for the other blocker to get out of the way. That's what appears to happen here. When Bernard fakes an inside rush, Colon overcompensates, Bernard switches to a speed rush and quickly gets his hands free of Colon's attempts to lock him up. By the time Roethlisberger gets to end of his seven step drop, Bernard has beaten Colon.
Roethlisberger again has a pair of checkdown options--Heath Miller is open in the right flat at the line of scrimmage, although there is no chance he'll turn that into a first down. After his chip block, Mendenhall is open behind the line of scrimmage on the left. Neither is an appealing option on third and 19, but they both would have avoided a sack.
Instead, Roethlisberger tries to step up to get away from Bernard, but Bernard wraps him up by his legs and pulls him down. Blame this one on Willie Colon getting physically beaten.
Sack No. 6: Third and 7, 6:04, 3Q.
By this point in the game it's 13-3 Browns, the crowd is understandably going crazy and the Steelers offensive line is already realizing that they are getting manhandled by a group of Browns defenders who are no threat to ever make a Pro Bowl. And Cleveland knows that a little confusion goes a long way.
Pittsburgh once again has their base pass package on the field--three wideouts, tight end Heath Miller and running back Rashard Mendenhall (who is playing a lot on third downs this week). But this time Miller is in the backfield with Mendenhall as they both flank Roethlisberger in the shotgun.
Cleveland has three cornerbacks up near the line in what again looks to be press coverage. The Browns also have six men up near the line threatening to rush. With seven blockers, Pittsburgh should have enough men to handle anything Cleveland sends at Roethlisberger.
At the snap Cleveland doesn't try anything fancy. They just send their front-four while a pair of linebackers with man pass coverage responsibilities hang back to see what Mendenhall and Miller do. Seeing that the linebackers aren't blitzing, Mendenhall and Miller head out in pass routes.
Pittsburgh should have all the pass protection Roethlisberger needs, and for the most part the line does its job. Max Starks knocks his man to the ground and lays on top of him. Colon handles his man as well while Trai Essex and Justin Hartwig double-team a defensive tackle.
But left guard Chris Kemoeatu barely lays a hand on David Bowens. When Keomeatu lunges to lock up Bowens with his hands, Bowens takes a step back. That one move sets everything up. By getting Kemoeatu's weight onto the front of his feet, Bowens has the advantage he needs to cut inside Kemoeatu. By the time Kemoeatu regains his balance, Bowens is already past him. By the time Roethlisberger realizes he's about to get leveled, he just has enough time to tuck the ball and take the sack. Blame this one entirely on Kemoeatu getting physically beaten.
Sack No. 7: Second and 5, 1:05 3Q.
The Steelers started out the game struggling in pass protection because of confusion over who to block. In the second and third quarter they started to lose some one-on-one blocking battles as well. But late in the third quarter Ben Roethlisberger caused a sack as well. With Pittsburgh again in a three wide receiver, one tight end, one tailback formation, Cleveland sent only three rushers on second and five. When the Browns' man coverage on the Steelers underneath receivers took away Ben Roethlisberger's first option (a crossing route to Hines Ward), he quickly decided to tuck and run. But while the pass protection was solid if Roethlisberger was looking to throw, there was no room to run, so Roethlisberger ran himself into the seventh sack of the game. Blame this one on Roethlisberger tucking and running too soon.
Sack No. 8: First and 10, 2:40 4Q.
Some quarterbacks struggle to hold onto the ball long enough after they've taken a few sacks. In Ben Roethlisberger's case, the opposite sometimes seems to happen. He's made so many big plays over the years after avoiding a sack that sometimes the more sacks he takes, the longer he seems to hold the ball. That seemed to happen as the Browns game went along. None of Roethlisberger's first five sacks occurred more than three seconds after the snap, and even his sixth one, which took place 3.3 seconds after the snap, can be excused as you should have more time than normal when facing a three-man rush.
But Roethlisberger's last two sacks seemed to come from trying to do too much. He took off too early on the seventh sack then held on to the ball too long on the eighth. Cleveland dialed up the same blitz package that had worked on the fourth sack, with strong safety Abram Elam coming off the Steelers right side while a linebacker bails out on an apparent blitz on the Steelers right side.
This time Pittsburgh was ready for Elam as Heath Miller stayed in to block Elam briefly before releasing while Hartwig once again pulled outside to pick up Elam as well. Because Miller had stopped his initial rush, Elam bailed on his blitz and wavered between rushing and dropping back to try to cover Miller. Mendenhall this time wasn't baited into picking up a blitzer who wasn't rushing. Instead he picked up linebacker Kaiuka Maiava rushing through the gap left by Hartwig pulling outside to pick up the safety. He laid a solid block on Maiava, enough to give Roethlisberger time to look at his first option, pump fake, move on to a second option and then start to look to his third option. But by that time Maiava had gotten off of Mendenhall's block and Corey Williams was beating Willie Colon to the inside.
Roethlisberger managed to step away from Williams, but that just gave Maiava and linebacker Brian Schaefering (who was being blocked adequately by Max Starks) time to wrap up Roethlisberger. In all Roethlisberger held the ball for 3.9 seconds against a five-man rush on first and 10. This sack can be blamed on Roethlisberger holding the ball too long.
So there were eight sacks and the blame could be spread everywhere. Roethlisberger held the ball too long on the last couple of sacks. There were a couple where confused linemen left a rusher unblocked. There were two where a linemen was simply beaten heads-up by his man.
But the biggest theme appeared to be the Steelers' offensive line is having way more assignment issues than a veteran line who has been playing together all year (and in the case of four members of the line for two years). Which is something that the Steelers front office will have to consider addressing when the season is over.