The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line is their secret weapon
In the end, it all looked relatively easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they romped to a win on wild card Sunday. After putting up two early scores, they hit the cruise control button (and Matt Moore), comfortably running through the Miami Dolphins on their way to a meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs.
As usual, the three B’s will dominate the postgame discussion: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were all at their scariest best, putting up big numbers and making light work of the Dolphins’ shaky defense. And while all three are great, it’s Pittsburgh’s offensive line that’s been beating the snot out of teams of late and should have postseason defenses worried.
The diversity of the Steelers’ run scheme is particularly impressive. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley and line coach Mike Munchak have developed a system that perfectly marries the skill-sets of their line and star running back.
They ask an awful lot of their linemen, with numerous reach blocks, a ton of movement, and a hybrid zone/gap blocking system that requires perfect technique on many of their base concepts ; they can’t just get away with raw power. Like a lot of the Steelers’ key pieces, they’re now back to full strength and are showing why they belong in the conversation as the best overall line in the NFL.
As a unit, the Steelers line has the perfect blend of in-line power and mobility. It doesn’t necessarily need to win by bullying a team at the point-of-attack (though it’s not lacking the ability to push anyone back off the ball), but its role is to distort the levels of the defensive front, stick on blocks, create alleys, and let Le’Veon Bell go to work jumping in and out of creases.
It’s a powerful combination, particularly when you factor in Bell’s psychic-like ability to read the line and find the correct lane. And while it’s his patience that often dominates any discussion, his burst, agility and vision are all what allows him to showcase his hesitation moves.
Together, they took it to the Dolphins on Sunday, dropping a sledgehammer on one of the league’s most expensive fronts. Bell ran wild, finishing the game with 167 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 29 carries.
From the outset, the game plan was clear: run it until the Dolphins proved they could stop it. As he’s often done this year, Haley brought in an additional offensive lineman to supplement his talented line and tight end (who is asked to do a lot in the Steelers’ blocking scheme). With the additional size and versatility, they ran the ball down Miami’s throat.
A five-and-half-minute soul-sapping touchdown drive to put them up 20–3 at the start of the second quarter encapsulated exactly what this run game is all about. The Steelers marched 84-yards down the field in 10 plays, continually handing the ball off to Bell, but never becoming predictable.
Adding an extra offensive lineman diversifies any run game. Like adding a fullback, it adds an extra gap and a genuine people-mover. Most importantly, it allowed the Steelers to create two double-teams inside, sealing off Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips (or still doubling Suh against bear fronts), before having the interior guys climb to take on the Dolphins’ linebackers. It was power football at its finest and utter chaos. They pushed Miami off the ball and created enough room for Bell to deftly glide between the different levels and rack up yardage.
Note: Notice on this play how left tackle Alejandro Villanueva appears to move into a pass-set rather than firing off the ball. I’m unsure whether it’s to draw the pass rusher up field, like a draw play, to create a crease for Bell, or whether he blew his assignment. If it’s the former, it’s an interesting design.
That was followed up with what they do best: get their mobile linemen pulling and moving in space. On the next play, they ran a counter that pulled right tackle Marcus Gilbert across the formation and opened up a huge avenue for Bell to carry the ball right down to the 1-yard line (a play that was initially ruled a touchdown and then overturned).
They again ran out of their heavy formation, with an extra lineman and a pair of tight ends.
At the snap, Gilbert pulled across the formation, while the left side of the line down blocked and walled off the Dolphins’ front, leaving the outer most edge-defender unblocked.
It’s an excellent example of an offensive line working in unison and the rhythms of the position; this isn’t just rhinos smacking into each other. It also showcased the trust and responsibility Haley and Munchak place in the extra blockers — linemen and tight ends — to hold the backside while other players pull.
The left side of the line did its job perfectly, driving the Dolphins interior lineman and weak-side linebacker inside. As they walled off the edge, Gilbert pulled right across the formation and sealed the unblocked defender — completely eliminating the defender from the play by flipping his hips and driving him backwards. Then, the interior guys took over, climbing to the second level and sealing off the Dolphins linebackers and rotating safety.
Bell followed the play design, cutting to his left and allowing his blocks to develop, including an outstanding effort from Antonio Brown on the perimeter. Bell went untouched all the way to the Dolphins’ 8-yard line, showing the open-field burst and power that makes him such an all-around talent.
On an offense that features a two-time Super Bowl champion at quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, along with arguably the best running back and wide receiver in the game, it’s easy to overlook the line. But the reality is that the skill players can only perform as well as the guys who block for them. And when the line plays like this, the Steelers offense can hang points on anyone.
Remarkably, there’s no obvious weakness. Even Dallas’ offensive line, which rightly receives so much national notoriety, has one weak spot — right tackle.
Pittsburgh is different.
Interior guys Mike Pouncey, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster are the household names. Their athleticism and ability to play without help is the key to how multiple the run scheme is. Yet, it’s on the outside where they’ve seen the most improvement, particularly in pass protection. Marcus Gilbert has developed into a top-15 tackle in the league, regularly left on an island to fight against edge-rushers. The progression of Gilbert on the right side has meant that the line as a whole can better protect Alejandro Villanueva (left tackle) whenever he faces an unfavorable matchup.
Villanueva’s growth is a different story all together. He is an Afghanistan war veteran who played his college ball at Army and signed his first professional contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 after going undrafted in 2010.
In college, the 6–foot-9 Villanueva played almost every position outside of quarterback. He was touted to be a tight end before playing along the offensive line in his junior year and finally converting to wide receiver during his senior season. Despite that, when he got to the pros he was still viewed as a blocking tight end, a guy who could play the pseudo-offensive line role, moving across the formation to help block, but could run the occasional pass pattern and surprise the opposition.
Now, he’s protecting the blindside of a future Hall of Fame quarterback for one of the league’s most prominent franchises. And, he’s playing out-of-his-mind good. His size and length is an obvious advantage in pass protection, where he is able to keep pass rushers off his pads, but he’s also a technician: anchoring against power and using nimble footwork against speed rushes. In the run game his height should be an issue. Standing at 6–9 takes away any kind of natural leverage, with defensive linemen already built to play lower to the ground and get underneath his pads. But that’s not the case. Villanueva is a complete mauler, and his athleticism gives the Steelers five linemen who can pull, move and play in space, opening up every kind of blocking mechanism you can imagine.
Run through the list of top offensive lines in your mind now and you probably start with some rotation of Dallas, Oakland and Tennessee. Well, the Steelers have a pretty solid case.
It’s not just on tape where their mobility, size, and power impresses; they’re right at the top of the most credible line measurements. They finished the regular season 4th in adjusted sack rate, 2nd in run blocking DVOA, and conceded pressures on just 17.8 percent of quarterback dropbacks, good for 5th in the league. Here’s how those figures stack up with the three aforementioned teams:
|Run Blocking DVOA||11th||5th||4th||2nd|
|Adjusted Sack Rate||1st||13th||16th||4th|
|Percentage of pressured dropbacks||1st||22nd||3rd||5th|
Numbers via FootballOutsiders
What separates the average, or good, offensive lines from the excellent ones is not individual talent at each position, but how the five members play as a cohesive unit. In that regard, particularly when running the ball, the Steelers may just be the best of them all.
They face their toughest test this weekend, heading to Kansas City to face the deepest and most athletic pass rush the postseason has to offer. A fully healthy Justin Houston is ready to go for the Chiefs after missing the teams’ first encounter early this season. And while it’s the superstar players who will receive much of the pregame focus, it’s the forgotten guys who will ultimately decide the strength-on-strength matchup.