“Play to your strengths.” Logical advice, to be sure.
What if your strengths and your enemy’s weaknesses coincide? That may be where the Steelers will find themselves Monday night as the teams open their 2016 seasons.
Pittsburgh’s defensive strength, it would seem, is going to be their stout defensive line this season. Ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are Pro Bowl-caliber players. Tackles Javon Hargrave and Daniel McCullers each bring different skill sets to the party, and each would be tough for any offensive line to block consistently -- Hargrave because of his elite quickness, and McCullers because, well, he is the proverbial, 800-pound gorilla.
So, when matched up against an offense with some clear blocking issues, it would seem like a perfect time to turn the dogs loose.
The Redskins’ offense is a unit on the rise, no doubt. Kirk Cousins has his weaknesses, but he’s proven to be a quality starter who can be depended upon regularly. The run game lost some significant depth with the loss of Alfred Morris to NFC-East rival Dallas in free agency, but Matt Jones carried a larger chunk of the load as last season progressed anyway. If he can do a better job of securing the ball in 2016, the Washington run game will be formidable, at least on the outside.
That’s because the interior offensive line is...shall we say...in need of talent?
They have their moments, of course, and second-year right guard Brandon Scherff is worth being excited about. But left guard Shawn Lauvao and center Kory Lichtensteiger have been below average, and aren’t showing signs of improving.
What plays significantly in the Steelers’ favor is that they struggle equally against quick rushers and massive bodies — exactly the kinds of players they will face in Hargrave, McCullers and Tuitt, primarily. Strangely, the guy they are least likely to struggle with is Heyward, who wins his battles simply by being scrappier and nastier than the guy across from him.
Lauvao could have his hands full with Hargrave, specifically, all day long. He plays the game similar to Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who teed off on the middle of Washington’s offensive line early and often in week two of the 2015 NFL season.
In this play, we see that Donald wins the initial battle with Lauvao with excellent technique, swatting away the guard’s efforts to get handsy off the snap. Once he has Lauvao off-balance, he simply runs right by him, where’ he’s met by a retreating Lichtensteiger. However, the center attempts to impede Donald simply by running into him, rather than setting his base and getting his arms up to engage Donald. The use of poor technique allows the nimble defensive tackle to execute a perfect spin, which he turns into a sack a second later.
Lauvao didn’t really do anything wrong on this play, but it demonstrates his vulnerability to guys who are quick and technically sound. Lichtensteiger, however, simply used poor technique and, as a result, took himself out of the play. It’s far from the only time something like this happened. The next clip shows a similar initial move by the defender, but a very different finish to the play.
First things first: this is not Lauvao getting beat. Rather, it is Spencer Long, who replaced Lauvao when he went in Injured Reserve after week three. In the end, though, it looks almost the same: the left guard is beaten soundly off the snap. In this case, the running back is able to successfully stop the rusher, but it’s enough to distract Cousins from the other threat: cornerback Bene Benwikere, blitzing from the quarterback’s blind side. Without that initial pressure right in front of his face, Cousins likely would have seen the defensive back coming at him unblocked. Instead, Washington’s first offensive possession of the second half lasts just one play after it ends in a strip-sack.
Lichtensteiger, though, may be the most vulnerable.
A recurring theme with the smallish center in 2015 was simply being overpowered. He’s also surprisingly slow off the snap, despite weighing in under 300 pounds. This is illustrated well against the Packers in the wildcard playoff round.
There’s not much in-depth analysis needed here. This is as straight-forward as line play gets: Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji fires off the line much faster than Lichtensteiger — surprising, considering Lichtensteiger was the guy who snapped the ball and, therefore, started the play. Raji immediately attacked the A-gap, which was logical considering that’s where he was lined up, pre-snap. Lichtensteiger, though, was unable to get any real contact with Raji until the nose tackle was completely inside the gap. At that point, the center was merely along for the ride. It was an outstanding play by Raji, but again demonstrates the lack of athleticism on the Redskins’ interior offensive line.
With these shortcomings in the Redskins’ offense, and the talent on the Steelers’ defensive line, Pittsburgh should own the trenches Monday night in Landover, Maryland.