Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
The Steelers defensive line played outstanding in shutting down both Ray Rice and Joe Flacco last week, but miscommunication on the offensive line in critical situations proved too large an obstacle to overcome.
Much has been written during the past two years about the Steelers run defense not being as stout as it was when players like Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu were in their prime. Some of this angst has been well-deserved; especially after games like the one against the Chiefs two weeks ago. Steeler Nation has been waiting for players like Cam Heyward and Lawrence Timmons to step up while hoping that veterans like James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Larry Foote could carry on a proud tradition of hard-hitting and suffocating defense. While in some areas of the country, football is becoming more like basketball on grass, the Steeler fans demand that their teams epitomize the ethos of brute physicality. Brute physicality is what Steeler fans got from their defense against the Ravens, and this 3rd and short play from early in the 3rd quarter illustrates it well.
The Steelers have been waiting for their young defensive lineman to learn how to play defensive line the John Mitchell way. Heyward shows on this play that he is starting to understand. First, look at his pad level. There are not a lot of 6' 5" dudes that are north of 300 pounds that have enough flexibility in the hips, knees and ankles to fire off the ball with power and leverage as is displayed here. He occupies both the guard and the tackle while giving up absolutely no ground. This allows Foote to run free. Hampton gets double teamed also and actually gives up some ground. But, since he has been killing Matt Birk all game, the guard does not even entertain the thought of climbing to Timmons. Timmons then fits in the open window.
Now for the obvious: Woodley destroys the tight end. Remember when we discussed pad level? The Ravens tight end does not have it, while Woodley is playing underneath his hands. Woodley's power allows him to run his feet through the block. The mistake that a lot of younger players make here would be to try and throw the tight end immediately and attempt to tackle the back. A good back like Rice will take advantage and cut off of that. Woodley maintains leverage so he has a two-way go. If Rice tries to go either outside or inside, 56 can make a play.
Harrison and Keisel are slanting backside to the offensive strength. Both get penetration. Because of Woodley and Foote's penetration, Rice wants to cut back, but there is a wall there. Rice has to try to cut all the way back behind Harrison. This eliminates all of his power and allows Lewis to make an easy play. Lewis is playing the tight end man, and he immediately attacks when the tight end blocks Harrison. Don't discount this effort by Lewis. There are a lot of corners that do not like to stick their nose in and tackle a back like Rice.
As was discussed in the article about stopping the T-E stunt, communication amongst the offensive linemen is vital. Unfortunately, we see what happens when there is a miscommunication on this crucial 3rd down play.
The key to understanding this play is to watch Pouncey and Dwyer. Pouncey immediately goes right; as do Foster and Adams. Dwyer then goes to the A gap to Pouncey's left. The Steelers are in a half slide with Dwyer scanning for a linebacker blitz.
The problem is that Colon thinks he is part of the slide protection. He blocks the linebacker. Starks knows that he has to block Suggs and he is expecting that Colon is going to block Ngata. Starks and Colon have to communicate on this play as to whether Colon can be part of the slide or not. Colon must think that Starks is blocking Ngata. There is no way he thinks Dwyer is supposed to block him. If Colon blocks Ngata and Dwyer blocks the linebacker, the play has a chance at being successful.
Finally, watch the receivers. None are breaking hot, and they shouldn't be. The Steelers should have this blocked. However, the lack of communication leaves Leftwich with no option except to take the sack.