If there was ever an omen that struck a cold chill down my spine was when Jack Bicknell Jr. became the offensiveline coach for the Steelers just mere days ago. There’s a certain style of blocking that Bicknell favors – zone blocking – and based on some comments he gave cited from Gerry Dulac of the PPG, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Bicknell may just implement in the coming season. That spells trouble the current line, the running game, and Ben Roethlisberger.
The zone block in a run attack pretty much dictates that all of the offensive linemen are smaller and quicker linemen. That means LT Max Starks, G Ramon Foster, and G Willie Colon are in danger of not returning (Starks and Foster via free agency) this offseason. All three are over 300 lbs. (Colon is the smallest at 315), and all three have speed issues that could prevent them from having success in a zone blocking scheme.
Starks had his best season in 2012 and was the best lineman of the entire offense. He started all 16 games and helped protect Ben’s blind side very effectively. In a running attack, the tackle is to secure the edge by either sealing off a blitz and allow the ball carrier to run inside the tackle or pull to the outside and allow the ball carrier to break outside and upfield. Starks does well sealing blitzes, but is not fast enough for most outside runs. With a healthy David DeCastro, Foster’s only option would be LG. Foster is probably the slowest of the guards, and that is too much to ask on a position that needs to be the strongest pulling blocker. Colon is the fastest of the three but is still bulky. In reality, it will be more than likely his history with injuries and a pricey salary that will knock him off the team.
If those three go away, the lineup could be (from Left to Right) Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, Pouncey, DeCastro, and Mike Adams. Five very young players, and all very talented. Adams, the biggest of the five, is a very good run blocker and played the right side when the Steelers had three games in a row with a 100-yard rusher. This lineup, or some variation of it (don’t forget about Doug Legursky) could be a good combination for a strong running attack. Could be.
So the Steelers could lose veteran linemen for the younger and smaller type. Check.
What’s the trade off of having smaller linemen? Well for one thing, the passing game could suffer. Smaller linemen mean a smaller pocket. Smaller linemen mean 300 lb men go up against 340 lb or greater defensive linemen. After the last several years of trying to beef up protection for Ben Roethlisberger, it seems that making your linemen smaller is a step in the wrong direction. It certainly means that a dink & dunk offense will be in order for the passing game. Will five linemen on the smaller side really be able to defend monsters like Haloti Ngata all game long?
Dulac points out that all 11 players and all the coaches of the offense need to be on board for this type of scheme – which includes having your quarterback step up and serve a block or two. As much as I love seeing receivers and QB’s throwing out blocks, watching Big Ben lower that shoulder (alarm bells!!!) or head to stop a pursuing linebacker on the outside does not give me that warm squishy feeling inside. Queazy maybe.
So with a line this small, albeit fast, it could be trouble for Roethlisberger’s long term health. Check.
The zone blocking scheme also favors the ball carrier running sweeps to the outside on a regular basis. That does not bode well for the Steelers current lineup of running backs. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are hands down between the tackle runners. They are the pounders and grinders. The only player who could benefit from this type of blocking scheme is Rashard Mendenhall, who is a free agent this offseason. Even if a scheme like this benefits a runner like Mendenhall (speed), I doubt it would actually benefit Mendenhall in applied situations. Mendenhall is a hesitant runner and can’t make up his mind fast enough where he wants to take the ball – even when there’s a hole staring him right in the face. One of the few teams that uses the zone scheme and uses it successfully is Houston. And, I can tell you that Mendenhall is no Arian Foster. Mendenhall being the free agent that he is will be too pricey for the Steelers to consider – his poor attitude and his monetary price tag will be too much of a drain on the organizational coffers. But, do the Steelers really have a choice if their other options are Bruiser #1, Bruiser #2, and ummm Baron Batch?
So now we don’t have a running back that can actually do well in this scheme. Check.
This is starting to turn into a very messy situation even in just the speculation phase. With a draft that needs to focus primarily on the defense and a backup QB to Ben Roethlisberger, I don’t think the Steelers can afford using a first or second or even third round draft pick on a running back that might work in a system like the zone block. It might be a good system to implement in the near future – like when we have a much faster and more dedicated running back and a QB that isn’t worth $102 million dollars. Just feels like the wrong system at the wrong time.
I applaud Bicknell and Haley wanting to better the running game, but perhaps the team should stick with the man to man blocking for now.