There were a lot of reasons the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers went on a magical run through the AFC playoffs as the #6 seed before capping it off in Detroit against a Seattle team that very few of us thought would be able to slow down the momentum of the Steelers at that point. Before we got to the title game in the Motor City, we had to win three tough games away from home in the AFC. We navigated those choppy waters in part because we got great play up front from the O Line.
Though that year's line had better personnel - Max Starks, Kendall Simmons, Jeff Hartings, Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith - it wasn't an amazing offensive line, particularly in pass protection. Still, it would be disingenuous to say it wasn't better than the stable in Pittsburgh in 2008. Marvel Smith was playing solid football before he hit the age of thirty; Simmons had not yet gotten paid; Faneca was not -quite- the same mauler he was in the earlier years of this decade, but he was still one of the best run blocking G in the game; at age 34, Hartings was still an amazing center, but he wasn't playing considerably better than Hartwig has been playing most of the year in '08; Max Starks was asked to fill in in a pinch at the ripe age of 22 though and he delivered.
This year, we have a number of guys that have proven capable of playing at a very competitive level. The problem has been consistency, and not just in terms of doing it week in and week out. There's also unfortunately been incongruous timing of when guys happen to step up. Darnell Stapleton and Justin Hartwig might be playing a great game (as they did on numerous occasions this year; but at the same time, Willie Colon and Chris K. were struggling. Willie Colon even had a few solid games, and many more excellent moments within his numerous average games.
As Lloyd Christmas might say, 'So you're saying there's a chance?'
Absolutely there is. Read on after the poll.
For starters, stranger things have happened, and quite frequently in fact. That David Tyree guy who made the miraculous catch against his helmet in last year's Super Bowl? I don't think he has a catch this year. He may, but not many. The 2006 Colts? The worst defense against the run. In the playoff run? Lights out dominant. Eli Manning last year before circa December 1st? A mediocre work in progress QB - much like our offensive line in 2008. Sure, Eli may have a more robust skill set to develop with than our offensive line. It's not a great collection of talent for sure. And the front office likely will allocate siginificant resources to improving it this offseason. Still, what we have now is not Houston Texans during the David Carr era. It's just a unit that has been forced to learn on the fly. Individually, the pieces leave something to be desired from a strictly physical attributes stand point. But it's not at all a hopeless cause this weekend, or even next year were the team to not do a thing personnel wise along the line.
Changes are on the horizon personnel wise for this offensive line, but for now, we're still alive and have seen flashes of what it takes to win tough games against good defenses. It's time to put it all together, particularly this week against San Diego. Willie Colon and Chris Kemoeatu may be playing for their jobs this playoffs, so I'm hoping they have career game(s) right away.
Jumping around here, but part of why we are in better shape this year than at the same time last year has been Darnell Stapleton's good, if not great, play this year. We'll be in much better shape as an organization moving forward because of his development this year, regardless of what happens in this year's playoffs. Instead of just hoping we might someday get contributions from Stapleton and Chris K., we now know what we have in both of them and can make much more informed decisions about which direction to go in in 2009 and beyond.
Forget about the future for the time being though. I'd argue that when Stapleton made his first start against Jacksonville, it was a turning point of sorts in the 2008 season. Two weeks earlier, we were embarrassed at Philadelphia. We've seen now that the Eagles are no joke getting to the QB - so it's not totally disappointing in hind sight what happened that day. Nevertheless, the following week we had compressible offensive struggles for much of the game against Baltimore, particularly in the first half when we mustered just 3 points.
Against Jacksonville, with FWP and Mendenhall out, as well as Simmons, the offense rushed for 127 yards, Ben had 300+ yards and 3 TDs, and though he was sacked 3 times on the evening, it was an undeniably impressive performance by not only Stapleton, but the whole line collectively. To me, it was a glimpse of what I thought might eventually materialize into a respectable offensive line.
Well, it's been frustrating over the course of the past 3 months or so, but to me, I will remain optimistic that they are going to play their best football of the year in the following weeks. They've been hitting the film room after hours together. That's a beautiful thing (though part of me wonders why so late in the season to start). But hey, better late than never.
Beyond that though, continuity is king and each game that passes without injury to one of our five guys up front only means they have that much more to store in their collective and individual memory banks. That's damn important when we're talking about guys like Chris K, Stape, Starks and even Colon. And with Hartwig, this is his first year around a whole new system and set of guys. Each extra game in the season adds ~6% of experience for them. I wouldn't sneeze at a 6% return on any investment of mine.
We shall see, but like in 2005, we're going to need improved play over what we got in the regular season. That year, the Steelers rushed the ball at an amazing clip - Parker had 250+ carries, while Bettis carried it 110 times, Verron Haynes 75+ times, and D. Staley 38 times. But only Parker averaged more than 4.0 ypc. Bettis, who in my pristine nostalgic mind was extremely efficient running the ball that year, only averaged 3.3 ypc.
Steelers QBs were sacked 32 times that year, at a sack percentage rate of 7.9% - meaning we were sacked 1 time for just about every 13 pass attempts, or 7.9%. In the playoffs though, Ben was sacked just once (19 attempts) in the WC round, twice in the DIV round (24 attempts), and twice in the AFC Champ. round (29 attempts). That gave them a sack % of 6.9% for the AFC playoffs that year, not a ton better than during the regular season, but nevertheless an improvement. Our offense as a whole that playoff run was a great example of how an offense can do the unexpected and do it with never before seen efficiency. That year it was passing early to set up the run late. What will it be this year? The opposite? Running early and often before legitimately softening up a defense, something we haven't really done all year? We'll see, but it's likely going to be more on the shoulders of Bruce Arians than on the players. With the right game plan, I think we're more than ready to be physical and execute. Moving on.
In 2007, when the line really struggled, Ben was sacked more than 10% of the time he dropped back to pass. Yikes. This year, Ben and Byron have been sacked 8.8% of the time they pass. Not great, but trending back in the right direction. Not good enough though.
Here are the sack rate %s of the remaining 8 QBs:
Ben Roethlisberger - 8.9 %
Phillip Rivers - 5.0%
Joe Flacco - 7.0%
Kerry Collins - 1.9%
Donovan McNabb - 3.9%
Eli Manning - 5.3%
Kurt Warner - 4.2%
Jake Delhomme - 4.6%
Of the remaining 7 opposing teams, I'd categorize the following as having great to excellent offensive lines: TEN, NYG, CAR
I'd put PHI just behind them in the above average but not great.
I'd then say SD, ARI, and BAL are all just average offensive lines. We're somewhere in that group with them.
It's also very much worth noting that look at those QBs - what do Collins, McNabb, Warner, and Delhomme all have in common? They're all old stiffs pretty much said crassly, but in respect to McNabb let's instead just call them intelligent savvy QBs who know how to not take a sack for the sake of their team and for the sake of their already sack ravaged bodies.
Throw Flacco in that group as well, because he's not playing behind a great OL. Instead, he's very impressively programmed himself early on in his career to not hold on to the ball too long. Analysts have been talking about Flacco's mobility and decision making. Not Roethlisberger. We've seen it time and time again though - players have peaks and valleys in their careers, particularly at a position as difficult as QB in the NFL. Flacco will have to adjust over the years, and Ben too will get back to his old self sniffing out pressure and taking off and running before it's too late.
Let's just hope that that development takes place starting this Sunday at Heinz Field. I, for one, think his offensive line is primed for a great game against a beat up San Diego defense. Give the Chargers all the credit in the world - and by no means is it unthinkable to imagine them winning this game. They're athletic, adrenaline will have its usual mind blowing ability to get players fired up on both teams. But at the end of the game - in the 2nd half when the adrenaline gives way to natural fatigue, hopefully we'll be mentally focused enough to put the foot on the gas and bury them if we have the chance.
That will largely depend on the defense of course. But it will also start with the tone set by the offensive line. When these two teams last met, the offensive line delivered when it had too. They were penalized throughout the day which stalled a few drives. Our red zone efficiency that day was putrid - but we were continually down there at least. All that led to just 11 points instead of an impressive and convincing 24-30 point game from the offense.
But when we had to have that final drive to win the football game, our line delivered. Our final drive was a 13 play 73 yard drive that ate up 6:30 late in the 4th quarter. On that drive, Parker did the following:
1) 1st and 10 from PIT 26: W.Parker left end to PIT 36 for 10 yards
2) 1st and 10 from PIT 36: W.Parker up the middle to PIT 40 for 4 yards
3) 1st and 10 from SD 21: W.Parker right end to SD 15 for 6 yards
4) 2nd and 4 from SD 15: W.Parker right guard to SD 10 for 5 yards
5) 1st and 10 from SD 10: W.Parker up the middle to SD 8 for 2 yards
6) 2nd and 8 from SD 8: W.Parker left guard to SD 4 for 4 yards
7) 3rd and 4 from SD 4:W. Parker left tackle for 4 yards. TD nullified by TD.
Remember how we begged for the ability to close out games with the running game? That was it right there. We can do the same Sunday if we protect the football, don't over think things, avoid unnecessary penalties and then most importantly, making sure that above all else, we're taking advantage of the week off and playing the most violent football in the trenches on both sides of the ball in the 4th quarter.