The exact date of when the Steelers’ Offensive Line began to deteriorate is up for debate. Was it when veteran Center Jeff Hartings retired after the 2006 season? Or was it when Alan Faneca departed for New York after 2007? Remember when Kendall Simmons and Marvel Smith were essentially lost for good during 2008? Regardless of when you want to pinpoint where and when the issues truly started, I think we can all agree that from 2006 to the present, warranted or not, the Steelers’ Offensive Line has had some glaring issues.
Guard David DeCastro looked primed to contribute and do some nice things during his Rookie season, but his knee injury should keep him out for a significant amount this year. But since they do not cancel games, the Steelers were forced to play some “roster Tetris” and start the music for some “Offensive Line Musical Chairs” for the umpteenth time in the last few seasons. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they will be facing likely their toughest A.F.C. pass-rushing foe this week in the form of the Denver Broncos.
I believe I have stated it before, but Denver recorded 41.0 Sacks last season. For those of you scoring at home, 41.0 was ranked Tied for 10th in the League last season and 4th in the Conference as well. “Gunslingin’” Dumervil and Von Miller have usurped James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley (at least in my opinion) as the most dynamic pass rushing duo in the A.F.C., and will be hungry to start the season off right. Furthermore, Denver drafted the talented Derek Wolfe out of Cincinnati in April, and he can do some damage from a pass-rushing perspective also. And although Denver’s top pass-rushing Linebacker from 2011, D.J. Williams (5.0), will be forced to sit this weekend, the Broncos should have more than enough fire-power along their Line to create some havoc and make life difficult for Big Ben this weekend.
This Offensive Line has been beset by injuries and poor play over the last half decade (2007-2011), and when you combine that with the fact that Roethlisberger is fond of extending plays, the Sack numbers which have accumulated over the years have been a bit ridiculous. Steelers Quarterbacks, with Ben taking most of the beatings, have hit the dirt 231 times over the last 5 seasons which averages out to just over 46.0 Sacks per year. Denver got to Big Ben 5 times in the Wild Card Game and I am sure new Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio is well aware of that fact. Granted, Ben was pretty much playing that game on one foot, but Denver was collapsing the pocket on a consistent basis with Miller and Dumervil doing much of the damage.
Are There Ways to Help Offensive Line?
The biggest way to help Big Ben avoid hits will of course be some productivity in the running game, an area which the Steelers had some success against the Broncos last season. Isaac Redman went over 100 Yards on the ground, and with Jonathan Dwyer primed for a solid campaign, plus Rookie speedster Chris Rainey available, the Steelers do have some options to attack a run Defense which ranked 22nd against the run last year and is missing D.J. Williams and Brian Dawkins. If the Steelers do decide to go in this direction, I cannot wait to see if the upgrade of Wolfe will help the Broncos, and it should serve to be a nice matchup to watch. But if Wolfe and the rest of Denver’s interior Defensive Line are able to do their jobs’, the Steelers will be forced to go to the air. This is where it will get tricky for Big Ben & the Offensive Line, and the onus will be on protecting #7 and keeping his jersey clean more often than not. If the Steelers do go to the air, there are a few, with an emphasis on few, ways in which this Line can be set up not quite behind the proverbial “8 Ball,” and hopefully circumvent the continued onslaught of Denver’s pass rushers.
Chances Are Few, But Do Exist For Success Through Air
While I already discussed some matchup issues the Steelers can create with their pass catchers between the numbers earlier in the week, the Steelers can also look to hurt the Broncos and help their Offensive Line by going to a No-Huddle and/or fast-paced attack. While Big Ben is not necessarily a “surgeon” out on the field like an Aaron Rodgers or a Drew Brees, he is more than capable of, and has achieved a large amount of success running, and calling plays out of a No-Huddle scheme (Steelers Win vs. Patriots comes to mind from 2011).
As I alluded to in my last post, New England destroyed Denver through the air in their Divisional Playoff meeting last season, and held Dumervil and Miller to 0 Sacks combined during the entire game. To their credit, Bill O’Brien and Josh McDaniels had Brady spread the field and look quickly to his pass catchers out of the Shotgun formation. Brady recognized the issues Denver had in the middle of the field and picked apart Denver’s Defense effectively and efficiently, and most importantly: got the ball out of Brady’s hands before he could be drilled. In fact, in both meetings between the two teams last season, Brady was only Sacked a total of 3 times. Thus, if “Boss Todd” Haley wants to keep these speedsters out of Big Ben’s face when he is asked to throw, he would be at least wise to consider calling plays which have Ben getting rid of the ball quickly. Plus, if anything can tire out and dishearten an overzealous pass-rush, it is a game plan which allows the Quarterback to dink-and-dunk down the field and avoid contact, and some Backs or Ends to chip the outside rushers as well.
The other way in which the Steelers’ make-shift Offensive Line can be helped against Denver’s pass-rush will be an effective mix of screens and draws to keep them off balance. If Denver’s Defense and pass-rush are (and will) getting up-field and completely selling out in their attempts to get to Roethlisberger, especially on early downs, the Steelers can use that to their advantage. Pass protection does not need to be of the greatest variety when the screen game is employed, and all Ben must do is a) hope he gets the ball over/around the oncoming traffic, and b) not get absolutely walloped after he gets rid of the ball. While I have been a tad harsh towards the Steelers’ Offensive Linemen and their faults’ in this post, one thing which this group can do well, like Pouncey and Colon, is get to the second level and work in the screen game effectively. With Denver’s Linebackers being on the small side, if the Steelers can execute a well-timed screen to a Back like Redman or Dwyer with Pouncey or Colon leading the way, advantage will go to the Steelers in said situation. Or if Rainey gets any sort of open-space or lane, he has shown the ability that he can go for 6 points any time he touches the ball.
Keeping Denver off-balance and frustrated will be key for this unit to succeed and protect Ben when he has to throw. 5 and 7 step drops must be used with caution as any extra time that Denver has to get to Roethlisberger will be used against him. The Steelers will not be able to keep the Broncos at bay the entire game, and to win in today’s N.F.L. requires throwing the football and doing so in an efficient manner. My ultimate hope is that Haley can construct a game-plan which highlights this group’s strengths and can mask a few of their weaknesses, something the previous Coordinator appeared to not do during his five year stint.
As the title states, it will be a “tall order” for Pittsburgh’s Offensive Line this weekend. Like it or not Steelers fans, but this is the most crucial matchup facing the Steelers’ this weekend. Peyton Manning is under Center for the Broncos, and with Peyton Manning come points, and with points come pressure on this Offense to either match Denver blow for blow, or sustain long and clock eating drives to keep “Captain Fivehead” on the sidelines.
The Broncos’ Defense will want to come in with a “blood in the water” mentality. They will to feed off of their home crowd and attack Big Ben every chance they get to accumulate Sacks and force Turnovers galore like they did back in January. On paper, and on the field, the advantage arrow will point in the Broncos’ direction each and every time Roethlisberger will look down the field, arm cocked, and ready to fire. It will thus be up to Starks, Colon, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert, and hopefully some Backs or Ends chipping to make sure that white #7 jersey can avoid some massive grass stains.
Will the Line and Haley’s play-calling help them come through? I have no idea. What I do know is that the Offensive Line is without question the Steelers’ (possibly only) weak link on the Offensive side of the ball. I will cross my fingers and hope for their success, but all we can do is wait, hope, and wish that all goes well on Sunday evening.
Stats Courtesy of: Pro Football Reference.com