For three years I rewatched every Steelers game with an eye on the offensive line. And a good bit of the time, it wasn't pretty. Whether it was a debacle against the Raiders in 2006 or the mass of confusion against the Eagles in 2008, there have been plenty of lowlights.
After watching the Steelers win the Super Bowl last year despite a struggling offensive line, I kind of figured that if everything went well, Pittsburgh could figure out a way to do it again. They had enough defense and enough skill position players on offense to make up for the offensive line's problems.
That appeared to be what the Steelers thought as well--they brought back the starting five from the Super Bowl team, although Darnell Stapleton
(sitting on injured reserve) has been replaced at right guard by Trai Essex
. It was a somewhat scary formula--stick with what you got and hope for the best.
But after rewatching the Steelers-Vikings game with a focus on the line play, it's clear that I was wrong. The defense may be good enough and the skill positions (thanks to Mike Wallace
) are even better than expected. But if the Steelers managed to defend their Super Bowl title this year, the biggest reason will be because the offensive line is significantly improved.
I haven't watched the Steelers offensive line in detail every week this year like I have in past years, but with them facing off against the Vikings--the NFL's leader in sacks and the team with arguably the best front four in football, it seems like a good time to check back in on the Steelers O-line.
What I found was pretty impressive. In watching the Steelers against the Vikings, the offensive line actually got the better of the Vikings for much of the game. Defensive end Jared Allen
, one of the top pass rushers in the game, finished the game with two tackles and no sacks. Kevin Williams
, one of the top defensive tackles in the game, had only one tackle. Not only did he end up with one tackle, but right tackle Willie Colon
put him on the ground several times on running plays.
Colon's play stood out more than anyone. Colon showed dominating run blocking while also showing dramatic improvement in pass blocking from previous years. The Steelers ran nine called running plays to the right for 78 yards. They ran nine other called runnng plays up the middle or to the left for a grand total of 25 yards. Colon was a big reason for that. When he teamed up with Essex to block Kevin Williams, he put Willams on the ground on three different occasions. On other running plays, he did an outstanding job of sealing the corner.
Over at the other tackle spot, Max Starks
had the toughest assignment of anyone. He was asked to block Allen, who came into the game second in the NFL in sacks, one-on-one throughout the game. Pittsburgh didn't give Starks an inordinate amount of help, but his combination of long arms and good footwork allowed him to neutralize one of the game's best pass rusher. I counted only four plays in the game where Allen clearly beat Starks--one pass deflection where Allen got his hands up at the line, a run play where he missed his block but it didn't play a part in the play and two pass plays where Allen got free eventually, but not in time to really bother Roethlisberger. When Allen tried to bull rush, Starks swallowed him up and showed that he could throw out an anchor that kept Allen from driving him back.
And when Allen tried to beat Starks with a speed rush, Starks was able to get his hands on Allen quickly enough to win the race to the corner.
Essex wasn't as dominating as Colon or Starks, but he was quite impressive. He doesn't have Colon or Chris Kemoeatu
's strength that allows them to plow people at times. But what he did show was an impressive awareness of angles and of his responsibilities. Essex's best play may have been as a pass blocker early in the first quarter. He got in his initial punch on Brian Robison
, only to watch Robison loop away on a stunt. Essex quickly handed Robison off, picked up defensive end Ray Edwards
looping around and then handed him off to block Jared Allen, who had come all the way around from the other defensive end spot.
It may not sound like much, but those handoffs from one offensive lineman to another are the kind of switch-offs that cause sacks every week, usually because a lineman drops his head and fixates on the man he is currently blocking. Essex instead keeps his head up and looking around, which makes it much easier to stay alert to line stunts and loops.
Last year, the Steelers were an easy mark for a team that blitzed and stunted to create confusion. This year, they seem to handle it like veterans who have played together and who know what everyone else along the line is doing.
Pittsburgh line still isn't one who will blow teams off the ball. But there pass blocking has improve to the point where it gives Roethlisberger the time to carve up defenses. Because of Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh will continue to have high sack totals--eight of his sacks this year have come on plays where he's held the ball for 3.5 seconds or more--but the improved pass blocking also explains why Roethlisberger is second in the league in passing yardage.