Since one of the most pressing issues facing the Steelers this offseason is how to handle the contracts of a number of players with large salary cap hits, we’re going to take this opportunity to break down the player statistics, salary cap implications, and play on the field to help determine what would be in the Steelers’ best interest. This will be the focus on our Steelers Vertex series over the next several weeks.
Starting off with the obvious choice of Ben Roethlisberger, we left it up to YOU, the readers, to determine which player we will look at next. Next up is Maurkice Pouncey as the top choice in the voter poll. For now, the choices will be players under contract for the 2021 season but the Steelers will need to consider if they are going to retain, extend, or release.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
As stated above, the topic at hand this week is looking at Maurkice Pouncey and making a case for what the Steelers should do if Pouncey does not decide to retire. Should they have him play out the rest of his contract, work a contract extension, or release him?
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
When it comes to offensive linemen, stats are not easy to come by. Of course, honors such a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections are one measuring stick, but sometimes these awards are more about name recognition than play on the field. Regardless, Maurkice Pouncey is a nine time Pro Bowler and two time first team All-Pro selection. The only seasons Pouncey did not make the Pro Bowl was in 2013 when he was injured on the first drive of the season and was lost for the year, and in 2015 when his season-ending injury occurred in the preseason.
Perhaps the best way to look at Pouncey’s contributions is to examine the games he missed in 2020. Sitting out with several other starters in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns may not give the best data, but Pouncey missed both Week 12 and 13 as he was on the Reserve/COVID-19 List. These two games are what many Steelers’ fans would call “the beginning of the end” for the 2020 season. Although the Steelers escaped with a win in Week 13 against the depleted Baltimore Ravens, it was a lackluster performance which bled into Week 14 and the Steelers first loss of the season. These games were the first two of the 2020 season where the Steelers failed to reach 20 points scored.
With reports of Pouncey considering retirement, his salary numbers have been widely reported. Pouncey is due $8 million in salary for 2021, so this would be the amount of salary cap savings the Steelers would see. Pouncey has a $6.475 million dead money hit as his 2021 cap number of $14.475 million is currently the fifth highest on the Steelers and the highest of any of their offensive linemen. Pouncey also has the fifth highest salary cap number of all NFL centers for the 2021 season.
In this case the numbers tell us very little, but the film should tell us a lot..
The Film Line:
Maurkice Pouncey at 31 isn’t the athlete he was in his prime. He’s a bit slower, a bit less agile and he isn’t as powerful as he was at his peak. But when we look at what he brings to the team, I’m going to skip right over his pass protection, because he remains one of the best in the NFL. Pouncey allows right around 1 QB pressure per game played, has given up 2 sacks in 2745 pass blocking snaps the last 5 seasons. He is credited with 10 blown pass blocks in the last three years, during that same stretch Quentin Nelson is credited with 16. (Stats from Sports Info Solutions) His weakness is getting driven back into the pocket when he loses leverage to really powerful defensive tackles. His strength is pretty much every other part of pass blocking.
There’s a reason Ben Roethlisberger loves Pouncey being his center.
For this article we are going to focus on what Maurkice Pouncey at the end of his career brings to the team outside of pass blocking.
Maurkice Pouncey is great getting to the second level in zone blocking. It’s one of the main reasons Mike Munchak switched the team to running a whole lot more zone runs. Pouncey, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster were fantastic on combo blocks, and it allowed Le’Veon Bell to be one of the most productive runners in the NFL. He could wait on those combo blocks to turn into downfield blocks and pick his way through the defense.
Week 15, 2nd quarter, 8:20. Maurkice Pouncey is the center, David DeCastro is the right guard.
Pouncey and DeCastro double the defensive tackle, and you can see it allows Pouncey to get leverage and while he drives the tackle backwards, DeCastro is able to go hunting for linebackers. DeCastro wasn’t his usual self after his injuries earlier in the season, but by this point in the season he was playing much better.
It wasn’t just DeCastro though, Maurkice Pouncey and Kevin Dotson also worked very well together, both in pass blocking and especially in the run game.
Week 2, 1st quarter, 5:54. Maurkice Pouncey is the center, Kevin Dotson is the right guard.
Pouncey does a great job getting away from the double team as soon as possible, it’s been a consistent strength of his for a decade. Here it’s just a one-arm jab and Pouncey is off to the second level as the tackle goes outside and Dotson has him locked up right away.
Compare that to when they ran that same play to the other side one drive earlier.
Week 2, 1st quarter, 11:19, Maurkice Pouncey is the center, Matt Feiler is the left guard.
Pouncey starts the combo block, he needs to help Feiler get set up and then get to the middle linebacker. Feiler doesn’t take the block over and by the time Pouncey gets off the block he’s too late to get in the linebacker’s way. Pouncey isn’t as strong in power schemes, where again he can struggle on 1v1 blocks with powerful defensive tackles.
The biggest negative you are likely to hear about Pouncey from Steelers fans is his snapping. Maurkice Pouncey has never been the most consistent snapper, but he is credited with only 8 fumbles on snaps (hits the ground without the QB getting a hand on it) in ten years as a starter. Of course 6 of those are in the last two years, with 4 coming in 2019 when he didn’t have Ben Roethlisberger. Mike Tomlin mentioned that Roethlisberger helped cover for Pouncey’s inconsistent snap placement, and it showed in 2020 with only 1 snap that was a fumble in the regular season.
Week 8, 2nd quarter, 13:33. Maurkice Pouncey is the center.
The ball hits the ground without the quarterback getting it, so it’s a fumble on the center. You can see how smoothly Roethlisberger scoops up the ball and he’s still able to make the play.
Look at the snap again, watch Pouncey’s snapping hand and his movement right after the snap.
Pouncey is focused on the defensive tackle that just slid next to him, and he wants to get that snapping hand out quickly to deliver a low strike and not lose leverage to a bigger, powerful defender. He wins that first contact and is able to anchor well because of it. Remember that is one of his struggles, big powerful tackles driving him backwards when he loses that first contact.
With that threat taking focus off his snap, his usual inconsistent snap placement ends up with the ball on the ground, coming out low as he is trying to keep low while rushing his delivery to win first contact.
Nine years as Ben Roethlisberger’s center and only 4 fumbles, but like JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2 fumbles in his first 3 years, the timing of the mistakes often matters more than the frequency.
Wild Card game, 1st quarter, 14:54. Maurkice Pouncey is the center.
It doesn’t get much worse than opening a playoff game by snapping it into the end zone for a defensive TD. Let’s take a closer look.
You can see Pouncey starting to get out of his stance before he finishes the snap. On this play he has to cross the tackle’s face right off the snap, and he is moving before he finishes his delivery. A terrible mistake at one of the worst times imaginable.
They would run that play again, in fact, it was the next play the Steelers ran.
Wild Card game, 1st quarter, 14:40. Maurkice Pouncey is the center.
The difference is incredibly small.
Maurkice Pouncey’s game is declining, it is incredibly rare to see a center last this long at such a high level of play, because once you start to slip, you don’t have room to account for that, that snap has to be executed right, or bad things happen. Pouncey trying to get a bit of advantage on defenders causes him problems.
If Pouncey is finished, it will be understandable, but he will also be incredibly hard to replace. Not many centers in 2020 brought to the field what Pouncey still brought. It wasn’t just reputation that landed him that Pro Bowl nod, there aren’t many centers that can play the game as well as Pouncey does. On the field he’s still one of the best, even if he’s not the same player he was in his prime, when he was the very best at his job in the NFL.
If Maurkice Pouncey is done, he’s going to be missed, and while this Vertex covers stats and film, Pouncey brings even more than that. It stood out to me how awful the Steelers looked after that bad snap, and it should stand out that it was the Steelers most vocal and emotional leader that messed up. A deflated Pouncey meant there wasn’t someone to pull the team out of that mess and get them re-centered.
That should give anyone pause, if the Steelers are looking to rebuild the talent on the offensive line with young players, the kind of leadership Maurkice Pouncey brings becomes even more important, and he showed this season that he was still a top center when he had Kevin Dotson and a healthy David DeCastro to work with.
If the Steelers enter 2021 without Maurkice Pouncey, they will have a major hole at center, and an incredible void in team leadership to fill.
Which player would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex? Make sure you vote in the pole below.
Which player under contract for the 2021 season would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex?
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Past Vertex breakdowns: