Anyone who watched the Tennessee Titans drive a stake through Dracula’s heart Saturday night (i.e. defeat the New England Patriots in Transyl, er, Foxboro), didn’t just partake in the vicarious thrill of seeing the Patriots eliminated from the post-season in the wild card round for the first time since 2009. They also witnessed a blueprint for success our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers would be wise to follow as we think ahead to the 2020 season. Tennessee played sound defense, won the turnover battle, converted in the red zone and, most importantly, ran the football down New England’s throat. It was a thing of beauty to behold.
The Titans ran the football well because their offensive line was physically dominant and the Patriots seemed to grow tired of tackling their 6’3-240 pound tailback, Derrick Henry, who treated the beleaguered New England defenders like a big brother bullying his younger siblings. The Steelers do many of the things well that allowed Tennessee to succeed against New England - they play great defense, they turn teams over and, when Roethlisberger is healthy, they are an effective red zone offense. What they have not done well recently is run the football.
The Steelers finished 29th in the league this season with an average of just over 90 yards rushing per game. Much has been made of how difficult it was to run in Roethlisberger’s absence since defenses didn’t respect their ability to throw and loaded the box with eight and even nine defenders. This was indeed the case. But the Steelers averaged 90 yards rushing per game in 2018 as well, when Roethlisberger was healthy and the Steelers possessed one of the league’s best passing attacks.
The yards-per-game stat may be deceiving since the Steelers ran the ball more this year than last (42% of their plays were runs compared to 33% in 2018). A better barometer of how they fared in the run game is yards per attempt, where Pittsburgh fell from 4.2 in 2018 to 3.7 in 2019. There’s no doubt the loaded boxes and constant injuries to our backs and linemen had a negative impact.
Still, that 4.2 ypa in 2018 ranked 24th in the league. It wasn’t like the Steelers were gashing all of the two-high looks and six-man boxes they got with Ben, AB and Juju in the lineup together. The rushing attack fared better with Le’Veon Bell here, and the Steelers did finish in the top ten in rushing DVOA from 2015-2017. But they have finished in the top half in the league in yards per attempt just twice in the last eight seasons. Now, with Bell gone, they are a bottom-third rushing attack. In constructing the offense increasingly around Roethlisberger and the receiving corps, the Steelers run game has deteriorated.
Historically, this is a bad thing. Running the ball well usually equates to success. That may sound antiquated in this pass-happy era. But it’s true. This season, the top four rushing teams in the league - Baltimore, San Francisco, Tennessee and Seattle - went a combined 47-17. All remain alive in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the top four passing teams - Tampa, Dallas, the Rams and Atlanta - all failed to qualify. Last season, Super Bowl participants Los Angeles and New England finished 3rd and 5th in rushing yards per game, respectively, while the top two passing teams, Tampa and the Steelers, did not make the playoffs. The fact the Steelers run game has fallen off considerably the past two seasons is no doubt a big reason they’ve missed the playoffs both years.
With an aging Roethlisberger returning from a long injury rehabilitation and a receiving corps minus the exceptionally talented Brown, the Steelers are no longer in a position to throw the ball nearly 70% of the time like they did in 2018. They are going to have to run it more effectively if they expect to compete for a championship in 2020.
I wrote about the importance of fixing their run game back in November. Now, with the season complete, I want to take a closer look at how they might do so. This is the first installment in a series, then, that will examine the line, the backs and the scheme. Here, I will focus on left guard Ramon Foster and on why, after eight years in the starting lineup, it’s time to make a change.
When I picture the Steelers’ offense, I see Foster first, standing nearly upright at the line of scrimmage, glancing back at the quarterback in the shotgun for a signal and then leaning down to tap center Maurkice Pouncey to alert him the QB is ready for the snap. The Steelers are one of the few teams to do it this way, and I can only guess it’s because Pouncey doesn’t like to take his eyes off of the defensive front to look back at the quarterback. So, Foster does it for him.
This is all part of the teamwork that makes offensive line play so wonderful to observe. No position group works harder, relies on one another more, or embraces the concept of “team” like the big guys up front. They are often the first to defend their teammates, praise their organization and hold each other accountable. They don’t seek the limelight or create controversy. They simply love playing football.
Few players in Pittsburgh have embodied these characteristics over the past decade like Foster. An undrafted free agent from the University of Tennessee in 2009, Foster worked his way into the starting lineup in 2011. He was paired to the left of Pouncey, who had taken over as the starting center upon being drafted in 2010. Right guard David DeCastro joined them a year later. Since that time, the trio has combined for a remarkable 367 starts. Few lines can boast such consistency in their interior.
There’s a fine line between experience and just being old, however, and in NFL terms the Steelers are reaching that point with their trio of ironmen. DeCastro will turn 30 this week. Pouncey is also 30 and Foster is 33. While DeCastro and Pouncey still look like they have some good football in front of them, Foster is clearly on the back end of his career. His play in 2019 unfortunately bears this out.
At 6’5-330, Foster’s size would suggest that he’s a mauler. But Foster has been most effective throughout his career when allowing technique and footwork to dictate his play rather than sheer physicality. For years the Steelers excelled as an inside zone run team with the since-departed Bell at tailback, relying on quickness, leverage and communication up front. Foster didn’t exactly blow people off the ball but he could move his feet and stay engaged, allowing the patient Bell to eventually find a hole. The following play, from 2017, was Foster (73) at his best:
Two seasons removed, Foster isn’t the same player. He’s gotten slower, he plays higher and he isn’t as powerful. Consider these images from week 11 against Cleveland. This is a simple trap scheme whereby all of the players to the left of the formation block back on the defender in their gap while DeCastro pulls and kicks the end man on the line of scrimmage. The scheme should look like this:
Unfortunately, Foster, at left guard, is too slow and plays too high to prevent penetration from the right defensive tackle, Larry Ogunjobi (65). This forces Steelers’ tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) to double Ogunjobi, which keeps Villanueva from climbing to block linebacker Joe Schobert (53). Schobert works through the empty gap into the hole to drop running back Jaylen Samuels (38) for a short gain.
Foster really struggled against quick, physical defensive linemen who got off the ball well and played with good leverage. I’ve been banging the drum against the Steelers’ use of the two-point stance for their offensive linemen for a while now and Foster’s technique work is a primary reason as to why. He can still move laterally fairly well from this stance, which benefits him on outside zone schemes when he has to reach an opponent. But on plays where he must displace defenders vertically, Foster struggles to be effective.
He’s also lost his ability to get off of the football well and to move in space. You can see his deficiencies in each of these areas in the two GIFs below, which occurred on back-to-back plays in week 15 against Buffalo. In the first, Foster, who is uncovered in the A-gap (the gap to his right), should be able to chip the defensive tackle to his left before climbing to block linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49), who is all the way out in the C-gap between Villanueva and tight end Vance McDonald. But Foster is slow off of the ball and fails to stay square when chipping, thus delaying him from getting to the linebacker level. This allows Edmunds to blow past him and tackle running back Kerith Whyte on the other side of the center. The play gains five yards, but if Foster cuts Edmunds off and Whyte gets through the hole, he is one-on-one with the safety and can potentially make a big play. For as good as Edmunds is, he shouldn’t be able to cross the face of a guard from two gaps away.
On the next play, the Steelers go to the wildcat and run a power-option concept with Samuels as the quarterback and Whyte in the tailback/pitch man role. Defensive end Trent Murphy (93) does a nice job getting penetration against McDonald’s down block but the real problem with the play is how long it takes Foster to pull. Watch how slowly the play develops as Samuels waits for Foster to make his block. Samuels is likely reading the force defender and will keep the ball inside of him or pitch it to Whyte based on how the force reacts. He can’t get a good read, however, because Foster is so slow getting out in front. This play looks like power read, in which case Foster is supposed to wrap up to Edmunds at the linebacker level. Instead, he tries to block the force player. This both muddies the read for Samuels and leaves Edmunds unblocked. The play is a disaster.
Because Foster lumbers in space, the Steelers have become one-handed when it comes to their ability to pull. They can run sweep and power to their left, with DeCastro leading, or, versus certain fronts, they can pull Pouncey. But their ability to run any scheme where they must pull to the right is limited. The numbers back this up. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers ranked 12th in the NFL this year when running around the left end, where Foster would predominantly block down, with an average of 4.36 yards per carry. When they ran to the right end, however, where Foster is often required to pull, they were 27th with a 3.2 average.
You can’t put all of the blame for the team’s run woes on Foster’s shoulders. Roethlisberger’s injury, subsequent injuries to various backs, receivers and linemen (Foster included), Pouncey’s suspension for his role in the Myles Garrett incident, a subpar year by Pouncey as a run blocker and a scheme that seemed to mismatch the strengths and weaknesses of backs and linemen at times were all culprits. Still, it would be irresponsible to simply say, “Everything will fix itself next year once Ben returns.” Roethlisberger will be 39 years old coming off of major surgery and rehab. That is far too risky a proposition to assume it will fix itself. The Steelers must be proactive in seeking solutions to their woes in the run game. And they should start by trying to upgrade at guard from Foster.
Please don’t consider me a hater for making this suggestion. Quite the contrary. I have as much respect for Foster as for any player on the Steelers. His teammates love him too, as evidenced by remarks made recently in this piece from Bleacher Report. Still, every player’s time comes in this game, and for the Steelers to evolve into more of a downhill, physical football team on offense, Foster’s time is now.
The question, of course, is how best to replace him? Drop The Hammer did a great piece recently as a part of his series on Steelers’ off-season needs on the available o-line talent in the upcoming draft. I won’t rehash what Hammer wrote, but it’s clear the Steelers will need to select a lineman with one of their first few picks no matter what they do with Foster. With their top backup, BJ Finney, entering unrestricted free agency and likely to get a fairly large offer to play elsewhere, and with the slow development of tackle Chuks Okorafor, depth on the line is fairly thin.
The Steelers could pay to resign Finney, of course, and move him into Foster’s spot. Then they would need to find a backup center to replace Finney. Or they could let Finney walk and move current starting right tackle Matt Feiler to left guard while drafting a tackle and letting him compete with Okorafor and Zach Banner for the starting spot.
They could also seek a guard in free agency. New Orleans’ Andrus Peat is one of the best in the class and would upgrade the run game significantly. Peat is just 26, was a Pro Bowler in 2018 and was said to be having another Pro Bowl-caliber campaign this year before a broken arm in week 11 ended his season. The Saints developed one of the best rushing attacks in the league the past few years with Peat arguably the gem of their interior line. Peat, out of Stanford, would pair with DeCastro to give the Steelers two physical guards from the Ivy League of the West. Unfortunately, he will be in high demand once he hits the market (if the Saints don’t sign him first) and will likely be priced beyond what the Steelers can afford. If there’s a dream free agent for this team, Peat is it.
Quenton Spain from Buffalo might be a more realistic option. Spain started all 17 games the Bills played this season and was lauded by his teammates as a smart, physical player. He surrendered just one sack and was flagged for just two penalties all season. I watched Spain extensively in Buffalo’s playoff loss to Houston last weekend. At 6’4-330, he resembles Foster in both size and ability. He is not a great athlete but he moves his feet well and stays on his blocks. Spain is 29 and not expected to break the bank in free agency. A younger, more athletic version of Foster wouldn’t be a bad thing given the financial constraints the Steelers face.
Cutting ties with Foster will have consequences. The Steelers cherish his locker room presence and he’s the type of team-first leader from whom every organization can benefit. He can still pass protect and the chemistry he’s developed with Pouncey will be hard to duplicate. But Foster just can’t get it done as a run blocker anymore and he makes too much money to retain as a backup. With the Steelers in desperate need of improving the rushing attack, moving on is the wisest course of action.
With an upgrade at the guard position, and hopefully better depth on the line in general, the Steelers can turn their attention to marrying their run scheme with the talent on hand. We’ll investigate how they might do that next week in part two.