Analyzing the Super Bowl: Breaking Down Steelers' O-Line
In 2008, the Steelers gave up 49 sacks (fourth worst in the league), they averaged 3.7 yard per carry (fourth worst in the league). They went into the Super Bowl with an aging center, and a fill-in undrafted guard (Darnell Stapleton) who never played another snap in an NFL game. And they won a ring.
So there may be a sense of deja vu among some Steelers fans about the trials and tribulations of this year's injury-plagued line. Pittsburgh will go into the Super Bowl without either of its starting tackles, as Willie Colon and Max Starks are on injured reserve. Guard Trai Essex was bounced to the bench for poor play during the season, and with Maurkice Pouncey injured, the Steelers will likely have to turn to backup center Doug Legursky against the Packers. When the game starts, there's a very high likelihood that Pittsburgh will be starting only one lineman (Chris Kemoeatu) projected to start when the first preseason minicamps began.
To give a better sense of who will be playing for the Steelers, here is a rundown of each of the team's starting linemen. This has been pulled from personal observation of nearly every snap the Steelers line played this season -- rundowns on the individual games through the season are available over at the Steelers Lounge.
Right tackle Flozell Adams may be old, and he may be slower than the ketchup in a old-fashioned glass bottle. But with Maurkice Pouncey banged up, he's also Pittsburgh's best offensive lineman. Adams is amazingly strong, so when he can get his hands on his assignment, he can often cave in defensive ends in the running game. He's best at sealing the inside on running plays his way, especially as he excels at blocking defensive ends and defensive tackles lined up inside of him.
When Adams gets in trouble is when he's asked to play in space. Adams was never very mobile, but the combination of age and a series of ankle sprains this year have reduced his foot speed from plodding to positively pokey. In the running game, he doesn't fare well when he's asked to block linebackers -- too often the linebacker has flowed to the ball before Adams can get to him. And in the passing game, Adams is much more vulnerable to speed rushes around the outside than bull rushes and inside moves. Because of his immobility, Adams is using walking a tight-rope in pass blocking. When he's doing his job, Adams will usually give up the edge to a speed rusher, but then time a hand punch for just the right moment so that he forces the rusher to go wide past Roethlisberger. If he doesn't time that punch right, Roethlisberger is in trouble.
Jonathan Scott is over his head as a starting left tackle, but then he's not supposed to be starting. Scott was signed to be the team's backup tackle, but Max Starks' season-ending injury forced him up to step into the starting lineup. Scott has trouble with keeping his center of balance properly located. He's too often caught lunging forward or failing to get a good wide base with his feet. When that happens, Scott can be driven back into the pocket and sometimes all the way back into Ben Roethlisberger. But because of Scott's concern for getting beaten inside, he is also sometimes vulnerable to being beaten around the edge. Earlier in the season he also struggled significantly to block effectively on the backside of running plays -- he'd be beaten inside way too often. But in the last couple of weeks, Scott has been playing his best football of the season.
Guard Chris Kemoeatu is nearly as strong as Adams, but you see that massive strength in much smaller doses. When he locks up a target with proper technique he can simply erase a defender, either burying him in the ground or driving him off the screen. But those plays are sandwiched around other plays where he struggled in pass blocking. When the Steelers decide to pull a guard in the run game, it's almost always Kemoeatu who gets the call (partly because the Steelers are a very right-handed running team). Kemoeatu is quick enough to pull, but once he's up to speed he's pretty much a train on a straight run of track. If a defender tries to take him on, he's likely to destroy him. But if the defender isn't directly in his path, Kemoeatu has real trouble adjusting to make a block.
The other thing to watch for with Kemoeatu is his knack for collecting penalty flags. He has a mean streak that generally serves him well, but if a Steeler is going to be flagged for a late hit, it's most likely going to be Kemoeatu.
Guard Ramon Foster is kind of like a weaker, slower version of Kemoeatu. Football Outsider's Ben Muth cleverly declared Foster exemplary for his versatility in playing poorly at guard and at tackle (when he was moved there because of an emergency) in the Steelers' playoff win against the Ravens. Foster did play better last week against the Jets, but he's a pretty limited player. He struggles to block linebackers because of limited mobility, and he doesn't have as much strength as Kemoeatu to get away with mistakes in technique.
Center Maurkice Pouncey says that he's likely to play on Sunday, which would be an amazingly quick recovery from a rather serious high ankle sprain. If he does play and can play effectively, it would be a huge benefit for the Steelers. Pouncey hasn't played as well as his reputation seems to indicate this year (I heard one national analyst this week call him the best center in the league), but he's been very solid, especially for a rookie. When healthy, Pouncey's mobility to track down linebackers is impressive. And once he gets to a linebacker or defensive back, Pouncey will block him and keep blocking him until the whistle sounds. Pouncey has more trouble in pass blocking and when handling a 330+ pound nose tackle. Pouncey still wins his share of those battles, but he is much more comfortable working in space than he is handing a man lined up a couple of inches off his nose.
If Pouncey can't play, his backup Doug Legursky is a pretty serviceable backup, generally. He's no Pouncey, and he played terribly against the Jets, but Legursky's scouting report is much like a poor man's version of Pouncey. In other words, he's by no means the worst backup center in the league, but you also would like to see #53 out there if you're a Steelers fans. Legusky is good at blocking linebackers and he's got good mobility. But he also has short arms which makes it tough for him to win one-on-ones with nose tackles. Too often (as happened in the Jets game) the nose tackle gets his hands on Legursky before Legursky can get his hands on him. Wen that happens, Legursky is largely along for the ride, which means the nose tackle can flow to the hole or drive him into the backfield. However, Legursky is very aware of blitzes and twists, so he shouldn't have too much trouble if his main job is to pick up linebackers trying to shoot the A-gap. If Green Bay decides instead to place a big 300 pounder like Raji over him on passing downs (something that is counter to the Packers' normal approach), he could be in some trouble.
If there is a piece of good news for the Steelers, it's that the Packers rely on massive defensive linemen for much of their pass rush. Clay Matthews is a matchup nightmare for Pittsburgh as neither Adams or Scott has the foot speed to handle his speed rushes off the edge -- for that matter Max Starks couldn't handle him in 2009 either. But Raji and Cullen Jenkins are the Packers' next two leading sackers. Pittsburgh's tackles, especially Adams, would prefer to face brawn than speed.