Kelvin Beachum faced a daunting task on Sunday with his first NFL start. Luckily, the Steelers coaches did what great coaches do: they put Beachum in the best possible position to be successful.
Mike Adams struggled in pass protection against Paul Kruger and the Ravens during their initial match-up at Heinz Field. As a result, Steeler Nation was understandably worried about the presence of Kelvin Beachum during the rematch. The pass protection overall was much improved, and has been widely reported, Beachum handled himself well. The Steeler coaches should receive some credit for this because they made some major changes to their protection schemes that the Ravens seemed unprepared for.
Slide Protection versus Man Protection
Offenses employ numerous different protections during a game. Famously, Buddy Ryan used to say that he just wanted to know the protection that the offense used in the first quarter. Buddy then rationalized that the offense coordinator would call that protection again in the fourth quarter when things got hot. Whatever was called first was the primary protection and would usually be used again at the most crucial moments. To counter the protections, certain blitzes are called to attack certain protections. A quarterback changes the protection pre snap (a tip off to this is when you see the back change sides when the quarterback is in the shotgun) and the defense changes the stunt. This is the chess match that occurs every play.
Man protection is exactly what is sounds like. I got the guy across from me. Man protection is, obviously, simple from an assignment stand point, and its good for 5 and 7 step drops. It allows the offensive lineman to maintain his block longer. With man protection, each offensive lineman determines his pass set. The offensive lineman has to think pre snap, "What footwork do I have to use in order to be successful?" Because the launch point of the quarterback is different for some throws, and the defensive lineman has different alignments every play, the set for the lineman changes every play. And, it's different for each lineman. Everybody loves the deep ball. Everyone wants to sit back there and sling it every play. But, as we saw with this week's GIF, vertical setting on a wide rushing defender is hard. I once saw Green Bay's offensive line coach explain how they went from giving up 4.5 sacks in one game to Jared Allen to winning the Super Bowl two years later. He explained that he convinced the powers that be to quit calling 7 step drops all the time. There was another offensive coordinator that used to stubbornly always call 7 step drops with a porous offensive line, but let's see if anyone can guess who that was in the comments. Anyways, vertical setting in man protection is hard, but it can lead to prodigious offensive performances.
This was the dilemma that the Steelers faced going into Sunday's game. Rightly, in my opinion, the Steelers refused to expose Beachum to a lot of man blocking. Instead, the Steelers heavily employed slide protection schemes against the Ravens.
We highlighted slide protection in the GIF from the first Ravens game. Slide protection is like zone blocking: instead of blocking a man you are blocking an area. You can do a full slide with all the offensive lineman, a half slide, or a few other variations. It usually starts with the quarterback declaring who the Mike linebacker is, and the center usually then calls out the type of slide. So, for example, let's say the Steelers are in an empty formation with five eligible receivers. Most defensives won't play zero man, so let's say that the defense is defending with six. That leaves five against five, but where are the five defenders coming from?
Based upon the pre snap look, Ben thinks that they are going to bring three from his right, with one of those three being a corner coming off the edge. Beachum and Foster are both covered, and Legursky calls slide right. Beachum steps to his right and the defender that was aligned on him slants inside of him towards Foster. Beachum lets him go (block your zone, not your man) and looks for someone threatening the edge. Foster does the exact same thing, so he picks up the guy slanting towards him. Legursky is uncovered and he is also in the slide, so he picks up the guy that aligned on Foster that is now slanting towards him. Pouncey and Starks are also both covered, so Legursky communicates to them that they are not part of the slide. Instead they are blocking the guys on them. That leaves the linebacker unaccounted for. If pre snap Ben thought that they were not bringing three from his right, he would've communicated that and Pouncey would have been part of slide. He and Legursky would've been responsible for the down lineman and the linebacker. As it stands now, Ben has to account for the linebacker. He has to communicate to the receivers that the linebacker is the hot read. Therefore, whomever the hot receiver is has to recognize the blitz and adjust his route.
Lots going on there mentally, but not as daunting physically. Since you are not blocking the defender if he goes inside of you, the technique is a lot simpler. Which brings us back to Beachum: whatever shortcomings he may have, intelligence is not one of them. As a matter of fact, with Pouncey playing guard and Legursky playing center in addition to Beachum at tackle, this was probably the "smartest" offensive line we've had in a while. No disrespect intended towards the normal starters, but because of the responsibility given to centers, they play smart by necessity. Otherwise, they'd be out of the league. Moreover, Beachum's intellectual acumen was well documented after the draft. It's not a slight to anyone to point that out. When playing offensive line, the who is always more important than the how. In otherwords, if you block the wrong guy great, the play has no chance of being successful. However, if you block the correct guy just adequate, you have a chance at having a successful play.
The flip side of all of this is the fact that the Ravens were never able to successfully attack the Steelers' slide protection. They were obviously caught somewhat off guard by it, but I think the aforementioned mental preparedness of the Steelers was the main reason for their success.
It will be interesting to see what adjustments the Steelers make this week. Whatever they are, I'm confident they'll play to our strengths and not our weaknesses.