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Carter’s Classroom: Simple solutions for the O-line ☕

If teams can simply overload the Steelers’ offensive line and win, this will be a rough final six games.

David DeCastro and Vance McDonald, Thursday night at First Energy Stadium after the Steelers lost to the Browns. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Steelers’ 21-7 loss to the Browns at First Energy Stadium last Thursday included four sacks allowed, a season high that raised the team’s season total to 15. That’s still the second-fewest in the NFL, but the o-line’s performance has hit a snag of late.

They’ve allowed seven sacks the past two weeks against the Browns and Rams. What’s more, the offense has averaged 50 rushing yards in those two games, which is not something that can continue if staying in contention.

Let’s look at how they can turn things back around:

Plenty of the Steelers’ issues the past two weeks have been about matchups. Two weeks ago, they faced the best defensive player in the NFL, Aaron Donald, and last week they faced one of the league’s premier edge rushers, Myles Garrett.

Garrett accounted for zero sacks, but he hit Mason Rudolph three times and drew two holding penalties from Alejandro VillanuevaRandy Fichtner did scheme help for Villanueva’s matchups with Garrett through most of the night, but Villanueva still struggled.

You can see Vance McDonald help Villanueva by chipping Garrett from the outside shoulder before he goes into his route. But Villanueva’s feet stop chopping and Garrett crosses his face to beat him inside. Villanueva ends up holding him to keep Rudolph clean, drawing the penalty:

One of the worst sins of offensive linemen in pass protection is failing to protect their inside gap. Villanueva got help to his outside and still allowed Garrett to beat him inside, which cannot happen. Garrett is an elite athlete that will capitalize on linemen slow in their footwork or sloppy in fundamentals.

That happened again to Matt Feiler on a third down where Chad Thomas beat him inside. He also gets help to his outside shoulder from Trey Edmunds, who chips Thomas. But Feiler doesn’t move quickly enough and Thomas’ swim move beats him to the inside:

Thomas isn’t a matchup nightmare like Garrett or Donald, so this is more inexcusable. But the film clearly showed most of the line’s issues came from individual mistakes in subtle footwork.

As good as Villanueva has been in the past, he’s always had his lapses when you’re reminded why he was an undrafted lineman, just like Feiler. The Steelers’ line had survived so far because they were helping negate those issues and neither player had atrocious games.

While the game progressed, those problems lessened. And that’s a good sign for first-year line coach Shaun Sarrett. They made adjustments to address where they were getting beat and avoided major communication failures for most of the second half.

But other matchup issues came when the line was overloaded and needed help. Like this sack by safety Juston Burris who overloaded the left side of the Steelers’ line.

Rudolph and the line had the proper adjustment called to protect against the overload, but Jaylen Samuels was unable to make the proper stop in the hole, leading to another fumble off a sack:

If teams can simply overload the Steelers’ offensive line and win, this will be a rough final six games. They need extra protectors that can do what James Conner did last year when he made major strides in protecting Ben Roethlisberger.

Those overloads also impacted the running game, which only produced 58 yards against the Browns. But what’s most troubling about the Steelers’ run game is that it can’t be relied upon for even the shortest of distances, like on third and fourth downs with one yard to go.

The Steelers are dead last in the NFL in this department, converting only four times on such occasions for 17.4 percent. If you want to understand just how bad that is, know that the Panthers are the second worst, converting 26.3 percent, and the Packers are the third worst, converting 41.7 percent.

And the answers on how to fix that remain the same as when I wrote about the Steelers’ short yardage issue in early October; play against opponents’ aggression.

Here’s another third-and-1 where ex-Steeler Morgan Burnett snuffs out Trey Edmunds before he can even get going. Burnett is a safety lined up in front of Mack Wilson and blitzing off the edge. Nick Vannett is lined up too wide to stop Burnett, who adjusted to the spot when the Steelers were already set.

Look at the entire Browns defense and you can see the only thing on their mind was to blow up the run:

What’s huge about Burnett’s play is that the rest of the Steelers’ line does its job. They control the line of scrimmage and collapse all the Browns’ linemen and linebackers inside to give Edmunds an isolated shot to beat a cornerback. But because Burnett overloaded one side, he beat it.

These are the times the offensive line can’t do it themselves. They need Rudolph and Fichtner to catch a defense off guard and capitalize when an overload blitz is sent. That happens on occasion, but not often enough.

Here is a second-half adjustment when the Browns blitzed six and the Steelers pick it up, allowing Rudolph to find James Washington for 22 yards.

The Browns even try a delayed stunt and everything is picked up. Rudolph has the pocket to stand his ground and step into his throw:

Feiler and Villanueva weren’t alone in their mistakes, as even veteran Ramon Foster missed an inside-gap blitz on a fourth down that cost the Steelers.

But those all are temporary mental or fundamental lapses that we’re seeing these players execute. That’s why no part of these last two games should suggest the offensive line is falling apart, just having breakdowns here and there.

Their ten day break provides plenty of time to review those mistakes and adjust accordingly for their upcoming rematch with the Bengals and their rematch with the Browns the following week.

If the line bounces back, don’t be surprised. But if they don’t, especially against a Browns’ defense without Garrett, it will trigger major alarms about the state of the unit moving forward.

Carter’s Classroom needs your help! We are seeking sponsors for the 2019 NFL season that would be willing to see their brand grow through advertising with us. All interested parties should contact me at christopher@dkpittsburghsports.com.

MORE CLASSROOM

Nov. 16: Recipe to beat Baker?
Nov. 14: Banner’s strong edge seals
Nov. 13: Don’t be surprised by Haden
Nov. 12: Receivers’ problems fixable

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Sudesh Prasad
Sudesh Prasad

Great breakdown of an ugly performance, Chris.

jjvesco99
jjvesco99

How much of the poor protection is the man behind the center? Ben could see the blitz better and take a step here or there to get that extra second. Mason can’t move at all back there.

Jag7
Jag7

Ramon Foster is not a good lineman anymore, Finney is better, I’ve seen enough of turnstile Ramon.

glacialdrift
glacialdrift

I agree, but the problem is Finney will be playing center for the next three weeks. So they’re stuck with Foster until Pouncey returns.

Zebug
Zebug

It seems like Munchak was vital but I just don’t believe it. I can see how a good coach is important for younger guys just learning but how can all these guys just forget what they are doing after Munchak leaves? If coaches like him are that important they should be paid in the $10 million range, otherwise you have an expensive O-line doing nothing.

MainLineBurgher
MainLineBurgher

Excellent job Chris. One of the best I’ve read. I’ve heard several on this site that Munchak doesn’t matter. Yet… last year he was an amazing Coach. This year, no drop off. Look at the experience of these linemen they say… they don’t need a coach! They’re among the best and know what they’re doing. It’s not the coach.

This argument makes no sense to me. Yes they’re getting older, but the coach matters! Last year = good; his year = bad. Then, some say that coaches don’t play, it’s the players that need to be better. Isolating this non-reason is ridiculous. Why bother having a coach if it doesn’t matter? Don’t many players in many sports retain a coach?

I will give the linemen the benefit of the doubt that they want to play well. Also, I believe that they’re trying. So… why the drop off? Bad blocking from backs. In my view, of course it has to do with the coaching. The question for me is, how much of it is attributable to that?

What do you think?

Coachdefense0
Coachdefense0

Good analysis,Chris. It only takes a miss every 5-6 plays on consecutive series to blow up a quarter and set a team behind if the opponent scores. Lots of issues- from scheme w/chip blocks to misaligned TEs. Tomlin talks about the “details ” but who is paying attention. Things like this get you at5 and 5.

SteveKea
SteveKea

Every player has his moments of bad play. It’s the nature of the game. You did a great job of explaining the fundamental breakdowns and certainly that can be cleaned up.

The problem for the O-linemen is that the skill players are no threat to the defense. Therefore the overloads and stacked boxes aren’t going to let up for the remainder of the season. They are literally under all out assault every snap, which is an enormous amount of pressure, even for a veteran line. Until that gets remedied the occasional breakdown coupled with our short yardage offense will continue to plague this team.

Vinqtin
Vinqtin

Chris – Does the lineman always know when a TE or RB is going to chip on a pass rusher? Sometimes I think the chip pushes the rusher in a direction that catches the lineman off guard and can’t adjust. The play with Villanueva looks that way to me.

What was Vannet doing on that 3rd down play. There was no one to his outside. Who was he planning to block? He or Rudolph need to recognize that and make an adjustment.

mrgonk
mrgonk

Munchak –> His understudy
Haley –> Fichtner
Roethlisberger –> Rudolph
Foster –> Finney
Gilbert –> Feiler
Nix –> Literally nothing
James –> ????
Everyone else –> 1 year older
Facing 2+ deep DBs –> facing 8+ man boxes

Kinda impressive they’re not worse than they are. And they’re not good.

chethejet
chethejet

Fundamentals are always an issue for a position that is both physical and technical in nature. Offense is simply not good in skill and execution. Depending on Ben coming back to form and thinking that will solve these issues is folly. Tomlin needs to address the basics of the offense that quite frankly has never been precise or smart. Splash plays are not an offense.

J. David Krauser
J. David Krauser

Fixable? The last couple of weeks we’ve averaged half-a-buck. And when Conner is in he fumbles. No one ever thought of Samuels as a guy who could pick up a blitzing LB, but, good grief, he barely gets in the guy’s way.

scd5045
scd5045

Well done Chris, I was waiting for this article after your Q&A last week, from your analysis Villanueva struggled against Garrett, as you mention garret had zero sacks but caused other disruptions that were advantageous for the browns against the Steelers offense. I got to admit I rarely focus on the offensive line, but I am going to focus more on them.

There is no doubt that Big Ben was and for years has been a big help to the entire offense by being mobile to give more times and additionally the receivers were a help too by breaking to get open after they ran their initial routes. Right now Rudolph has show poise but has lacked the mobility plus is surrounded by the opponents defense when he’s in the pocket and our receivers this year have lacked the ability to get open.

In the current Steelers scheme they need more play action and they need to get Rudolph to roll out to buy time and be more fluid in their play calling, which poiñts at fichtner and tomlin.

Notorious Furn
Notorious Furn

Great break down!

Geoffrey
Geoffrey

Great work Chris. I was hopeful for Okafor helping after the early minutes of the Rams game. But that quickly fell apart. Fundamentals slipping is a bad sign. These lineman weren’t elite before Munchak, and now they seem to be slipping in the attention to detail department, which was Munchak’s strength.

I’m not really judging anyone based off this game because Thursday night games are always awful, but you gave us a lot of stuff to keep our eyes on in the future.

Years of Control
Years of Control

And the next couple games, Pouncey will be suspended, so things might get worse before getting better.

Paddy
Paddy

Not seeing much of a pocket, backs have a hard time picking up blitzers. Vannett has been useless and #89 is not himself. Too many things to fix along with the injuries.

rk98
rk98

I know Rudolph isn’t a veteran but:
1. It strikes me as odd how he seems completely unaware of pressure – and not in a good way, On the sack, he pump fakes right in the direction of the blitzing safety. And then turns his back to him as if he wasn’t there.
2. I am pretty sure an experienced QB sees the 4th down blitz coming and either pulls Vanett in or audibles into a wide open pass to Vanett.

dlhyatt
dlhyatt

It seems Rudolph doesn’t really help his lineman by moving to softer spots in the pocket or by switching into plays that put them in a good situation matchup wise.

Soup
Soup

How could you possibly know that!!

Str8steel
Str8steel

I’ve was shocked at how badly AV was getting walked back into Rudolph.

gary_oshell
gary_oshell

Excellent, as always Chris.