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mesaSteeler 02-14-2011 06:22 PM

Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
Posted on February 14, 2011 by ryan
Steelers Lounge

“Draft an offensive lineman!”

That has been the Steelers fans’ springtime rallying cry for the last decade or so. And after the 2010 season, it hasn’t changed. Unlike year’s past, though, Pittsburgh had the makings of an above-average unit for the first time since 2005. But injuries — starting in preseason and continuing through the Super Bowl — squashed those plans.

Willie Colon, Max Starks and Maurkice Pouncey gave way to Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott and Doug Legursky. And while there were rough patches, the replacements were … adequate. Which, all things considered, is probably more than you could ask for.

Assuming Colon and Starks return in 2011 (and assuming there will be an NFL season), the Steelers will be in the market for a starting guard to join Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu, right? For shiggles, let’s say the team re-signs Scott (the guy was a lightning rod for most of the season, but he held it together during the stretch run; that’s worth something, I’d think), and Flozell returns, too. Should the organization’s first priority be to find a right guard? Put differently: would that have been the difference in the Steelers’ losses last season?

Historically, one of the knocks on the o-line was its inability to keep Big Ben upright. Turns out, Roethlisberger’s knack for extending plays — and taking a few hits while doing so — had a lot to do with the unit’s overall success. Ironical, yes.

But here’s the thing: the combination of a mediocre group of five fat guys in front of a scramblin’, tough franchise quarterback mitigates the need for a top-flight offensive lineman, right?


Glass half full: the Steelers’ o-line improved over the course of the season and had its best game in the Super Bowl. That’s pretty much how you draw it up heading into training camp: get better each week and play your best when it counts most.

Glass half empty: Despite Ben’s elusiveness, the hits add up. (See the rearranged nose, the frankenboot and various other ailments we don’t even know about.) Roethlisberger isn’t a rhythm quarterback, at least in the sense that the ball regularly comes out when he is at the top of his 3-, 5- or 7-step drop. But it’s hard to argue that having a more competent group in front of Ben won’t keep him safer.


The Steelers selected Maurkice Pouncey with the 18th overall pick last spring, he immediately moved into the starting lineup and stayed there right up until he was injured in the AFC Championship game. Pouncey was named to the Pro Bowl and was Pittsburgh’s best o-lineman. He was a huge upgrade over Justin Hartwig and Sean Mahan, but the offensive line didn’t implode when Legursky replaced Pouncey in the Super Bowl. Just the opposite.

Football Outsiders’ Ben Muth after the game:

But this column isn’t about the Packers, it’s about the Steelers offensive line. I thought they played great football. They played against one of the best defenses in the NFL and gave up one coverage sack. They averaged 5.5 yards a carry on the ground. If someone would have released a photo journal of me watching the Super Bowl (which is a guaranteed best seller) it would be called Shock and Awe. I was shocked they played so well, and a little in awe of how a much maligned and hurting group pulled together for an incredible performance.

It’s difficult to dream up a scenario that includes the words, “[Pittsburgh's] worst unit, their offensive line, played [its] best game” only to find out that the Steelers lost. Considered separately, an average defensive effort, or an off-night from the franchise quarterback and you might still expect a Pittsburgh victory. But against the Packers, the NFL’s second-best defense, the Steelers offensive line, a punch line all season, had its best game. A lot of the credit should go to Sean Kugler, who has a strong case for team MVP.

Look, we’re talking about a rag-tag bunch; you can always make a case for why Pittsburgh should take an offensive lineman with first-round pick. But given how well Kugler coached these guys up, and that Starks and Colon will return in the summer (hey, consider them two high-round selections if that makes you feel better), maybe the Steelers, at the margins and with limited resources, would be better off using the 31st pick on a cornerback.


The thought first crossed my mind after reading GlennW’s comment in last week’s discussion thread. It basically boils down to this:

I’m coming around to the notion that we need to draft a CB in the first round if that special player is available. When you look at where we’ve failed against the best of the best (Patriots, Packers, even the Jets to an extent) as opposed to versus our division rivals or the run-of-the-mills from the rest of the league, it’s the total inability to decently defend the pass even with some upfront pressure on the QB. I re-watched the Super Bowl, and McFadden was just awful lined up against the immortal Jordy Nelson, twisted and turned every which way. I think McFadden is hopeless, and that down the stretch our pass defense was actually better (but not by much) when McFadden was injured and totally out of the equation with Gay replacing him outside, even if we lost depth in the nickel/dime.

As much as it pains me, I can’t disagree about B-Mac. Most of his 2010 season went something like this: a) leave game after the first series because of the nagging hip pointer injury, b) return and get toasted for the rest of the afternoon.

When the Steelers traded for B-Mac last offseason, he admitted that his one-year stint in Arizona had been marred by injuries. And maybe that’s what happened in 2010, too. Whatever: injuries or incompetence, it doesn’t matter. When McFadden played, he wasn’t good. When he was out, William Gay moved to cornerback, which meant that Anthony Madison played nickel and (deep breath) Keenan Lewis played dime.

The lack of depth at cornerback is a much bigger problem than the o-line woes. Kugler found enough duct-tape to hold the offensive line together, and Big Ben did the rest. For Dick LeBeau, subpar cornerbacks (outside of Ike, another priority re-signing) meant that he had to be more conservative with Troy Polamalu.

After the Super Bowl, one of the Dallas Morning News writers suggested that Polamalu’s Defensive Player of the Year Award was “tarnished” because Troy was a no-show for most of the playoffs. Maybe he was injured. Or perhaps, as Dale Lolley speculated last week, Troy wasn’t his usual effective self by necessity:

…It’s my feeling the Steelers were so concerned with their corners outside of Ike Taylor that they felt they had to keep Polamalu deep to protect from being beaten over the top. (sure wish we had drafted a CB last year instead of another LB. - mesa)

We saw Ryan Clark down in the box at times, but he doesn’t have anywhere near Polamalu’s speed. I believe they felt with McFadden hobbled, that exposed them to the deep ball with McFadden, William Gay and Anthony Madison, particularly with Clark as the only deep safety. It drives home the fact that this team needs to upgrade its speed in the secondary.

And then there’s this, from NFL Network’s Albert Breer:

[O]n the Steelers’ 55 defensive snaps in Super Bowl XLV, safety Troy Polamalu lined up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap just three times, an enormously low number for a player who’s at his best when he’s all over the place.

Pittsburgh’s contention all week was that the Packers’ spread wouldn’t faze its defense, but the way the players were deployed indicates something else entirely. The Steelers went to more single-safety looks with three and four corners on the field to contend with Green Bay’s receivers, at times taking Ryan Clark off the field and having Polamalu take on some of his ‘center fielder’ responsibilities.

Breer’s comments go back to what GlennW wrote above (and something most fans have been lamenting all season): LeBeau’s defensive philosophy works against 90 percent of the offenses, but the ones that give the Steelers the most trouble — the Pats, Saints, Packers — routinely make the playoffs.

If history is any guide, who the Steelers select 31st overall will come down to three words: best player available. It’s a rough outline for how the organization builds its roster, and for the most part, it has been a successful strategy. notes that Kemoeatu was dreadful in 2010, which means that the Steelers could realistically be in the market for two starting interior linemen. The counterargument is that the return of Colon and Starks should mean more stability across the unit, lessening Kemoeatu’s ineffectiveness.

But there is no help on the way for the secondary. Ike Taylor is a top-flight cornerback, but that’s it. B-Mac’s best days appear to be in the rearview, and we have seen what happens when Gay starts. Madison is on the roster for his special-teams prowess and I’m fine if the only time he sees the field are in special-teams situations. Lewis, in a word, has been disappointing. In a perfect world, Pittsburgh would have a legit NFL corner opposite Taylor, and have B-Mac and Gay (another free agent) play in the sub packages.

It comes down to this: can the Steelers compete with their current secondary setup? Yep. They managed it last season and the two seasons prior to that, too (the primary difference: Deshea Townsend was the nickel back until this year). Can the Steelers win consistently against the league’s most dangerous offenses, offenses that feature quick passing and defensive game plans that require bump-and-run man coverage? Nope.

Either way (and depending on how things play out in front of them), the Steelers can’t go far wrong by taking the best offensive lineman or cornerback available with the 31st selection. (If you’re interested, CBS’ Rob Rang has Pittsburgh taking guard Danny Watkins, and CBS’ Chad Reuter thinks it will be tackle Derek Sherrod.)

Then again, what do I know. Leading up to the 2004 draft, I thought that the Steelers should take a cornerback over a quarterback. (DeAngelo Hall … can you imagine how that train wreck would have played out?), And I wasn’t thrilled with the Lawrence Timmons selection in 2007. A year later, nobody thought Rashard Mendenhall would be around when Pittsburgh went on the clock. Ben, Juan and Humpy have all had big roles in the organization’s success, which only goes to reinforce what we already knew: there’s a reason nobody asks me for personnel advice. So don’t be surprised if the Steelers take another linebacker*.

* joke … I think

mesaSteeler 02-14-2011 06:26 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
Here is the article mentioned in the above post. - mesa
Word of Muth: Last Game, Best Game

by Ben Muth

It has always been my experience that the biggest game a team plays will be a microcosm of the entire season. Your star players make the key plays to keep you alive. Your biggest weakness becomes magnified under the intense pressure. And whether or not you win or lose, you can ultimately point to the outcome as obvious based on what has happened throughout the year. This is not the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Nothing about the Super Bowl represented Pittsburgh's season as a whole. The Steelers' No. 1 ranked defense couldn't get stops or turnovers. Their star quarterback missed open receivers and failed to deliver late. Their worst unit, their offensive line, played the best game of anyone. And most importantly, the Steelers lost. The Steelers didn't do that very often this year.

This game completely debunks the theory that these big games represent the season as a whole. Unless you look at it from the Packers point of view: They didn't even try to run the ball, they overcame a bunch of injuries, their defense forced turnovers, and they could always fall back on Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. I guess the theory only holds true for winners.

But this column isn't about the Packers, it's about the Steelers offensive line. I thought they played great football. They played against one of the best defenses in the NFL and gave up one coverage sack. They averaged 5.5 yards a carry on the ground. If someone would have released a photo journal of me watching the Super Bowl (which is a guaranteed best seller) it would be called Shock and Awe. I was shocked they played so well, and a little in awe of how a much maligned and hurting group pulled together for an incredible performance. This game was the high-cholesterol equivalent of Timmy Smith going for 200 yards against the Broncos in a Super Bowl.

I think Doug Legursky needs to be commended for his performance on Sunday. A lot of the talk going into the game was about the loss of Maurkice Pouncey, and how that would lead to a big game for B.J. Raji. That was obviously not the case. Legursky did a great a job of not only sustaining his blocks, but also sustaining them on the line of scrimmage. The latter is the key part -- by limiting penetration, the line allowed the running backs to cut back a couple of times for big runs.

But when you play center, actually blocking people is only about half the job. You are also responsible for sending your fellow blockers in the right directions. It certainly seemed like Pittsburgh's line was on the same page all evening. The only time I can remember a truly free rusher was when Ramon Foster failed to see Sam Shields on a B gap blitz in the middle of the fourth quarter. That wasn't Legursky's fault though, as Foster was heading in the right direction before a linebacker caught his eye and brought him needlessly inside. Other than that small hiccup, the Steelers were in position all night.

Legursky played well in relief, but the stars of this game were the tackles (cue spit take). Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott put on a clinic. Adams was tremendous in the running game, opening up holes on the right side of the line all game. He was able to get more movement than I would have guessed, and he got up to the second level more than I've seen this season. I cannot think of a lot of running plays where Adams wouldn't have graded out favorably. Scott was effective in the running game as well, he just did so in a less glamorous fashion. The left tackle was on the backside of most running plays, but just like Legursky, he did a good job of keeping his defender on the line of scrimmage, to allow any cutbacks.

As nice as it is that these two were so good on the ground, NFL tackles get paid to protect the quarterback. Adams and Scott did exactly that, allowing just the one coverage sack between them.

Adams wasn't perfect: He did allow a couple of pressures, but considering he was matched up with Clay Matthews so much, he more than held his own. Matthews was asked to spy a lot, but when he was asked to get pressure, he rarely did. Scott was simply dominant. I cannot remember a single time where he allowed any pressure (that's what the comment section is for). Scott was tremendously patient in pass protection and never over-extended himself. He kept a good distance with his hands (meaning he punched at the right time to keep defenders away from his pads) and never seemed to be in trouble. Scott played well last week, but he took it to another level this week. He was so good that I suspect Al Davis is offering a second-rounder and a $10 million signing bonus to bring him to Oakland.

The guards weren't as good as the tackles or Legursky. Ramon Foster was a big part of those holes to the right side. I thought Adams was better, but Foster certainly deserves his due. The right guard wasn't as good in pass protection. He missed Shields on the blitz I mentioned earlier, and he was called for a hold on that same drive (Joe Buck insisted it was Adams, but the ref and I agree that it was Foster). His fellow guard Chris Kemoeatu was by far the weakest link in the chain.
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Kemoeatu made a couple of costly mistakes early in the game that put Pittsburgh in a hole. On the first drive of the game, Kemoeatu was beat on a draw on second-and-4. His man didn't make the tackle, but he did gum up the works enough to cause a five-yard loss and a third-and-long later in the drive.

The biggest mistake for Kemoeatu came on the pick-six. His hands were too wide, which allowed him to get bull-rushed into the backfield. The rest of the protection was good enough to allow Roethlisberger to side-step the rusher, but Big Ben thought he could make a play down the field. Roethlisberger tried to make the deep throw but was hit, and the rest is history. After that Kemoeatu was decent enough, especially when he was pulling (except for his obligatory one stupid penalty).

Before we go into Rashard Mendenhall's fumble, I wanted to mention the tight ends. Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth had a hell of a game blocking. They totally handled Green Bay's outside linebackers in the running game and allowed Mendenhall to get outside on multiple occasions. Miller in particular was impressive against Matthews. To put it bluntly, Miller owned Matthews the majority of the game. With the exception of a questionable holding call, I can't remember Miller losing to Matthews on a running play.

A lot of people (most notably, Peter King) felt that the Mendenhall fumble was the biggest play in the game. I disagree with this sentiment, but it certainly was the biggest play of the fourth quarter. Now, there's never any excuse for fumbling the ball, but Mendenhall wasn't put in a very good position by the play. It was a weird play that I hadn't seen the Steelers run before, and it certainly made the comeback a lot more difficult.
Figure 1: Mendenhall's fumble

Green Bay came out in 4-4 personnel and lined up in what was basically a 5-3. The three-technique was to the tight end side (the offense's left). The basic scheme was a down/down/kick scheme (everyone blocks down, and you kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage), which is a variation of Power. This play was unique because the center was the puller, and therefore, he was the kick-out man as opposed to the backside guard.

I have two theories on this particular blocking scheme. It was either a change in scheme made at the line of scrimmage because Legursky wasn't sure he could block back on the three-technique to his left, or it was a poorly designed play. The former means that Kemoeatu was supposed to pull, but they kept him back to block the defensive tackle, which meant the center had to pull. Because I think the Steelers are well-coached, I'm going to believe the former.

Anyway, both down blocks went fine, but Legursky got wrong-armed on the kick-out by Ryan Pickett. Getting wrong-armed means that the defender is able to rip through you with his far arm and get inside leverage. This usually bows the blocker back and makes the runner bounce outside. Here, it meant that Legursky got in the way of the fullback and prevented him from getting a block on Clay Matthews. This wall of humanity met Mendenhall, and he lost the ball when Matthews put his helmet right on it.

If the decision to have the center pull was made at the line of scrimmage, I still wouldn't blame Legursky entirely. Certain plays just don't work against certain fronts. Asking your center to snap the ball, pull, and kick out a 300-pound five-technique is just too much. He's never going to get much of a block on this play. I wonder if, after the safety they gave up to the Jets in the regular season, they changed their scheme to allow the center to pull. Against New York, they pulled the guard against a similar look, and Jason Taylor knifed in for the deciding defensive points. Here they tried to pull the center to shore up the backside, and it was just as disastrous. You have to wonder if there was a way to get out of this play once they saw the defensive front.

That concludes this season's weekly editions of Word of Muth. I plan on doing offseason columns every three or four weeks. Right now the plan is to use a mish-mash of formats -- another Q&A, entire columns dedicated to a single scheme versus different looks, maybe an interview. If you have any suggestions please leave them in the comment section, or e-mail them to me. Also, be sure to follow my new Twitter account, @FO_wordofmuth.

pete74 02-14-2011 06:43 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
awesome read

SoCalFan 02-14-2011 07:10 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
Nice story but come on,not even close,CB!!!!!

mesaSteeler 02-14-2011 07:12 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
Just to make this more interesting here are players rated around pick 31 from CBS's draft prospect rating.

30 4 Jimmy Smith CB
Colorado 6-2 205 1-2 same 4.49
31 1 Kyle Rudolph TE Notre Dame 6-6 265 1-2 injury 4.64
32 1 Martez Wilson ILB Illinois 6-4 250 1-2 same 4.59
33 3 Torrey Smith WR Maryland 6-1 205 1-2 same 4.37
34 5 Aaron Williams CB Texas 6-1 195 1-2 same 4.49
35 1 Mike Pouncey OG Florida 6-4 310 1-2 same 5.29

Not being a draft guru I have no idea if these two CB are worth a number 1 pick however I do find it interesting that there are two CBs rated close to where we pick. Also note that Mike Pouncey is listed at 35.

At this point I would take a CB but I would not be surprised if we took a LB or a tall WR. (The last two options are a joke I hope.)

Fire Arians 02-14-2011 07:22 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
i think corners are our biggest need. however if pouncey is available at 31 take him, it's too good to pass up. not to mention it would be filling the #2 need.

i can only hope that our young corners will get a chance to play, whether it be lewis/butler or a 1st-3rd rd pick. We need players to fill in the cb spot NOW. someone should tell lebeau that it's not the end of the world to play rookies on defense. look how well that worked out for our offense? sanders/brown became critical to our offense's success in the mid-late season. the same can happen for our defense, but of course you never know until you give these kids a CHANCE to play. you don't need to rot on the bench for 3 years to be ready FFS, you only improve when you get actual game experience.

i want to see young talent push mcfadden/gay for starting roles in training camp.

SoCalFan 02-14-2011 07:25 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
I watched youtube footage on both corners Smith and Williams and they both look solid.Both play the run well also.Williams seems a bit more physical.Thanks for the info,lots to look foreward to!!!

FanSince72 02-14-2011 07:26 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
Cornerback, cornerback, cornerback.

GMU Steeler 02-14-2011 07:27 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
I'd prefer a corner I guess. Wouldn't mind Mike Pouncey of course but two of our key corners- McFadden/Taylor are going to be above 30 this year and there's no guarantee that we resign Ike either. Plus the guys behind them: Madison, Lewis, and Gay aren't that special. We showed that we can do a lot better with a makeshift o-line than secondary. I'm sure our FO will make good pick though. Do you guys think it's possible we trade up if we see a guy we really really like though? Haven't done that since the year Holmes was drafted in the 1st round.

Fire Arians 02-14-2011 07:29 PM

Re: Bigger Need for the Steelers: Cornerback or O-Line?
is 4.49 speed fast enough to cover a #2 wr? that seems kinda slow.

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