Grading The O-Line: Quick Passes Make a Difference

The Steelers managed to put the memory of the Eagles' debacle behind them with a win against the Ravens, but if you think the team's offensive line and blitz pick-up issues are behind them, you'd be mistaken.

Pittsburgh did handle Rex Ryan's innovative blitz packages better than it did the Eagles' come-from-anywhere blitz, but the Steelers still had trouble picking up blitzers, despite the fact that Baltimore rarely sent more than five pass rushers. The biggest difference between the first-half struggles and the second-half success was the emphasis on quicker passes and Ben Roethlisberger's ability to shrug off unblocked blitzers.

Twice on key plays, Roethlisberger was able to allow the Steelers to make big plays out of potential disaster. Bart Scott came unblocked on a blitz early in the fourth quarter, but Roethlisberger twisted away from his grasp and found Hines Ward for 49 yards, which set up a Jeff Reed field goal. And on the game-winning drive in overtime, Roethlisberger dodged an unblocked defensive back to find Mewelde Moore for 21 yards. Later, needing a little more yardage to set up Jeff Reed's game-winning field goal, Roethlisberger was able to get rid of the ball before an unblocked Scott could get to him. He found Moore for seven yards which set up the game-winner.

While it succeeded on Sunday, there is some danger to Roethlisberger finding success from shrugging off blitzers. One of the problems during the Eagles game was Roethlisberger's tendency to hold onto the ball when he was facing an unblocked blitzer instead of checking down to a hot route. We saw that same fault in the Ravens game, as the first sack came on when defensive back Corey Ivy came unblocked on a cornerback blitz where it's hard to have expected anyone to block him. Hines Ward, the man Ivy came off of to blitz, was left open for a short gain, but Roethlisberger held the ball (although in his defense, Ward didn't seem to cut off his route in recognition of the blitz).

So the Steelers have a tough balance to pull off. Ideally, you don't want to see Roethlisberger lose that cockiness that makes him think that he can shed a pass rusher to make a big play, but it also would be nice to see him get rid of the ball more often to avoid the pounding that has given him a sore shoulder, a hyperextended knee and a hand injury during the first month of the season.

But Pittsburgh did strike a better balance of quick passes and seven-step drops. After calling way too many deep drops against the Eagles, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians did more of the same in the first half. But in the second half, the Steelers finally realized that quick drops would get the passing game going.

In the second half, three of Roethlisberger's 15 pass attempts took longer than 2.5 seconds to get off, while seven of Roethlisberger's 12 attempts in the first half took longer than 2.5 seconds. Not coincidentally, Roethlisberger was sacked three tiimes in the first half, but wasn't sacked in the second half.

The other big news from last Sunday was Kendall Simmons' Achilles injury, which gave Darnell Stapleton his first chance to play in a regular season game. The best way to describe Stapleton's first half of real pro football is this: the Steelers won and Stapleton didn't do anything to embarrass himself. It's hard to go much further than that, as Stapleton didn't to a whole lot to stand out either, but as a fill-in guard, that's a pretty good job.

After replacing Simmons at the start of the second half, Stapleton was rarely completely beaten (I counted only one play where his man clearly beat him for a solo tackle), but he did struggle to generate much push. For instance on a running play to the left, Trevor Pryce pushed Stapleton into the backfield, but Stapelton did a good job of riding Pryce's momentum to turn him away from the play. The general impression was that Stapelton got by with guile when his strength wasn't enough to simply root his man out of the hole, but that's not a bad thing.

Individual Grades

Enough for the generalities. Here's the individual highlights.

The +/- grades this week look pretty bad, but that's partly just because of the defense the Steelers were facing. I haven't really figured out a way to credit good pass blocking as a positive--it basically means you did your job on the play, and the Steelers struggles running the ball (2.5 yards per carry) didn't allow for a whole lot of plus plays. As has been mentioned before, I base this on rewatching the game play by play with an eye on the offensive line. There are plays where it's hard to know what the blocking scheme was, but in general, it's possible to tell who has been physically beaten and who is dominating their man.

Marvel Smith15
Chris Kemoeatu27
Justin Hartwig28
Kendall Simmons13
Darnell Stapleton12
Willie Colon23

Justin Hartwig and Chris Kemoeatu's poor grades reflect the difficulty of blocking Ravens' man/mountain Haloti Ngata. Ngata is the first player I've seen Kemoeatu face that beat him physically. As strong as Kemoeatu is, Ngata was stronger, which allowed him to push Kemoeatu into the backfield on a couple of plays. Kemo's strength was still apparent at other times, including one play where he blocked a defensive lineman, then gave Ray Lewis a one-armed shove, which knocked Lewis to the ground.

Hartwig also had two other tough matchups. The Ravens' other defensive tackles, Trevor Pryce and Justin Bannan, were also very active, but the biggest challenge Hartwig faced was Rex Ryan's decision to focus blitzing on attacking the A gap between Hartwig and Kemoeatu. On multiple plays, the Ravens sent three pass rushers to attack that one gap. Hartwig and Kemoeatu generally did a good job of picking someone up, but one more would come free.

Before he left the game, Simmons was actually playing pretty well. Two of his three negative plays came when he had false starts. Otherwise he generally held his own and did a decent job of getting to the second level to block Ray Lewis.

Stapleton, as mentioned above, didn't do much worse than Simmons, an unlike Simmons, he didn't have any penalties.

Marvel Smith found Marques Douglas to be as much of a handful as Alan Faneca did last year. Smith was drive back a couple of times by Douglas, but he also showed his strength by driving Ngata off the line on a play, something almost no one else did all night. Smith was also beaten by Terrell Suggs on a speed rush for the only sack that could be blamed on a Steelers offensive lineman.

Willie Colon had a pretty decent night. He was also beaten on the play where Smith gave up a sack, and he was abused by Ngata on a goal line play, but generally he held his own and played well in pass protection.

The other player that jumped out was Sean McHugh. The Steelers No. 3 tight end showed that he's a very useful blocking fullback as well. The move came by necessity because Carey Davis was playing tailback, but he did a better job of meeting linebackers in the hole than Davis has done over the past two years. It would be interesting to see if the Steelers use McHugh more at fullback in running situations even when the backfield gets healthy.

Speaking of Davis, he could be blamed for one of the sacks, although the sack he allowed came on a play where Roethlisberger had plenty of time (3.1 seconds). The other sack has to be blamed on Roethlisberger as the sack came from an unblocked defensive back that couldn't be accounted for in the blocking scheme.

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