Friday, September 13, 2013

Steelers' O-Line: We don't need no stinkin' athletic ability!

I really have to wonder how long it is going to be before Ben Roethlisberger gets killed playing behind this Steelers' offensive line.  The worst part about this situation, is that this problem is hardly what anyone would call a new revelation.  Their line simply sucks.  In week 1, versus the Titans, Roethlisberger was sacked 5 times, while the running backs averaged 2.07 yards per carry.  Does anybody really think that the Titans are the greatest threat that the Steelers will face this year?  Personally, I think it's going to get a lot worse this Sunday when they face the Bengals.  This game could be comically bad (although the Bengals did fail to record a sack against the Bears, which surprised me).

First of all, let's look at their offensive line, to see if they are even physically capable of blocking anyone more intimidating than a chipmunk.

Player         Year     Weight    Draft #     40 yd Kangaroo     Agility
Mike Adams LT 2012 323 56 5.28 0.138 -0.787
Ramon Foster LG 2009 328              U 5.28 -0.689 -0.896
Fernando Velasco C 2008 318              U          N/A          N/A          N/A
David Decastro RG 2012 316 24 5.32 -0.117 1.301
Marcus Gilbert RT 2011 330 63 5.47 0.566 -1.340

I dropped Fernando Velasco into the lineup, since it seems that the team intends for him to fill in for Maurkice Pouncey.  Personally, I think their backup Cody Wallace might be a more interesting replacement, though it is hard to compare him to Velasco, since Velasco has no combine data.

Either way, what we have here is an offensive line that is probably built to fail.  While this offensive line is quite large, with the smallest lineman weighing 316 pounds, they are almost all lacking any real athletic ability.  The Steelers seem to be shopping at Sam's Club for their linemen, where bulk matters more than quality.  The only player with any real power (as measured by the Kangaroo Score), is Marcus Gilbert, but this is probably largely negated by his abysmally poor Agility Score.  To be fair, I should mention that Gilbert's Agility Score is based solely off of his short shuttle time, as his 3-cone time is unavailable, though there is normally a significant correlation between the two drills.  David "Friendly Fire" DeCastro is the only member of the line that I can't really dismiss as a likely fraud.  In DeCastro's case, his scores suggest only somewhat average power, but he does appear to be quite agile, which is more typical among successful guards

While the value of this is a bit more debatable, this group also shows fairly poor results in the 40 yard dash, with the best result being 5.28 seconds.  Now, normally I would agree with people who say that how fast an offensive lineman can run 40 yards is completely pointless...except this might not be entirely true.  Generally speaking, I would say that the history of success for offensive linemen really declines rather sharply when their time drops below 5.2 seconds.  Rather than being a pointless measure of their top speed, I think this may relate to how 'light on their feet' the player is, when it comes to making quick adjustments in their foot positioning.  Generally, I rely on the Agility Score to capture this nimbly-toed quality of offensive linemen, as this tends to also correspond with an acceptable 40 time, but it is still something I keep on the checklist.  Basically the Steelers linemen are as swift as slugs.  Yes, we could look at their 10 yard splits instead, but it really doesn't do them any favors, or improve the overall picture.

Rather than building a line that is mobile, agile and hostile, the Steelers seem to be aiming for 'simply big'.  That the Steelers have invested draft picks from the first two rounds in most of these players, honestly confuses the hell out of me.  For a bit of comparison, let's look at the Patriots offensive line, and how they measure up.

Player        Year     Weight    Draft #      40 yd Kangaroo     Agility
Nate Solder LT 2011 319 17 4.96 1.281 1.592
Logan Mankins LG 2005 307 32 5.06 -0.370 1.146
Ryan Wendell C 2009 286              U          N/A          N/A          N/A
Dan Connolly RG 2005 311              U 5.19 0.274 0.695
Sebastian Vollmer RT 2009 312 58 5.13 1.748 1.076

Hmm, which line would you rather have?  The funniest part of this is that the Patriots haven't invested any more in their line, in terms of where their linemen were selected in the draft.  If I included Maurkice Pouncey, who was selected with the 18th overall pick in 2010, then the Steelers average starting offensive linemen would come at the 83rd overall pick, while the Patriots would have come at 123th pick (undrafted players are counted as the 255th pick).  So, the Patriots built a better line, that was more athletic, and at a lower average draft position.

Still, it is the line that they have, and there isn't much point in wishing things were different now.  So how are they going to move the ball?

On the one hand, you have the Steelers' running backs, who present little reason to believe they are capable of accomplishing very much.  Le'Veon Bell is probably the most gifted of the bunch, but he's not playing yet due to injury.  Even if he was playing, I'm not confident he has the superhuman ability to overcome the obstacles this line would put in his path.  After Bell, you get to Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling, and I don't think anybody believes the opposing defense is quaking in their boots at those names.  Bad blocking, mixed with mediocre running backs?  Why, that does sound like a recipe for success, doesn't it?

Now, this lack of actual physical ability along the line is going to affect the Steelers' ability to pass the ball too, so maybe keeping the opposing defenses guessing by running the ball still has some value.  Except, in this case, throwing the ball still appears to easily be the lesser of two evils.  At least with the Steelers passing game, they have 3 legitimately fast (actually, Antonio Brown isn't that fast) and talented (probably) receivers, who have shown some ability to produce, when given an opportunity.  Markus Wheaton and Emmanuel Sanders both scored well enough coming out of college to appear on the computer's list of WR prospects that appeared to be reasonably safe bets to become future reliable performers.  You can feel free to dismiss that if you wish, though things tend to work out for players of this type.  While the computer had less confidence in Antonio Brown, we have to acknowledge that he has done quite well so far, so he is a good target as well.  The main problem here is that all of these receivers tend to be on the small side, limiting their usefulness in the redzone.  Still, the receivers would appear to be the area of strength for this offense.  So, it seems they are going to just have to throw the ball up (quickly!) and pray.

I suspect that the inevitable outcome of the Steelers' current situation is an injury for Ben Roethlisberger, but until the great QB decapitation occurs, I'll just be watching to see how bad this mess can get.  I actually have a fair bit of respect for the Steelers' organization, but their draft tendencies along the offensive line really make no sense to me.  The funniest aspect of this situation is that the team didn't even draft a single offensive linemen this year.  So, basically, they were confident in this group, for some unknown reason.

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