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Steelers Vertex: Loss vs. gain at center

The Steelers have a big question mark in the middle of their offensive line in 2021.

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

With changes in the Steelers roster from 2020 to 2021, we’re going to highlight players lost at a position and the production of the assumed replacement. This week we are looking at the loss of Maurkice Pouncey at the center position. While rookie Kendrick Green is a viable candidate to land the center job, we will focus on B.J. Finney as he may be called on to start the 2021 season.

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.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

As I’ve said many times before, statistics for offensive lineman are difficult to come by. When it comes to Maurkice Pouncey, his nine Pro Bowls and two All-Pro selections highlight his career which spanned from 2010 to 2020. The only years Pouncey did not make the Pro Bowl where in 2013 when he only played eight snaps and in 2015 when he missed the entire season after being injured in the preseason.

Somewhere else to look for some data on Pouncey is his scores according to Pro Football Focus, but they may not paint a very accurate picture. In 2020 Pouncey had an overall score of 54.8 which landed him ranked 30th of 36 qualifying centers. In 2019 his grade was 51.5 where he ranked 33rd out of 35 players. These two scores were down significantly from the four previous years with scores all in the 70s.

Pouncey’s top grade came in 2016 at 78.1 when he ranked ninth out of 38 centers. His highest ranking was in 2014 when he ranked seventh of 40 centers with a score of 76.1. Even in the years Pouncey was selected All-Pro, PFF never placed him in their top five centers based on their specific scoring. Therefore the baseline for Pouncey may be skewed as he doesn’t seem to get much love from PFF.

When it comes to B.J. Finney, the biggest statistic is zero offensive snaps in 2020 between his time with the Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals. For this reason, Finney did not have a PFF score for 2020. In 2019 he had an overall score 56.9 which ranked him 30th of 35 qualifying centers. In Finney’s previous seasons, he did not meet the minimum snap requirement to qualify in the rankings despite receiving a score. His best score came in 2016 with a 72.8 based on 299 offensive snaps. In Finney’s four years in Pittsburgh on the active roster from 2016 to 2019, he started 13 games and logged over 1,000 snaps.

So there are some numbers for both players, but we all know this comes down to the film.

The Film Line:

Maurkice Pouncey was a great center for the Pittsburgh Steelers for over a decade, and will be discussed as a potential Hall of Fame player. But the Steelers aren’t replacing 2014 Maurkice Pouncey, they are replacing the Maurkice Pouncey that was on the field in 2020. As players get older and collect wear and tear on their bodies, their quickness and power tend to fade. So the question is, how much did Maurkice Pouncey have left in the tank in 2020.

Week 2, third quarter, 14:53. Maurkice Pouncey is the center.

Maurkice Pouncey is fantastic on this play. Watch #98 for the Broncos. He tries to move with the play, but Pouncey violently turns him and puts him right into Matt Feiler’s chest, not helping so much as winning Feiler’s block for him. He then moves to block the inside linebacker, and when that linebacker moves away from the run, he switches targets and takes out the safety.

That’s top notch execution. Maurkice Pouncey was still a force on inside zone runs, one of the reasons I loved him playing next to Kevin Dotson (driving #99 off the line), who was also fantastic on inside zone runs.

The problem with this run is James Conner cuts back, and is tackled by the lineman that Alejandro Villanueva is trying to seal out of the middle.

Week 2, fourth quarter, 12:03. Maurkice Pouncey is the center.

Pouncey lands his block, slowing the defender down so Conner can get outside, but the great part of the play is his effort after his defender gets free and is chasing the play. Pouncey follows, playing to the whistle and it allows him to get a second block on his man and put him on the ground.

Week 15, fourth quarter, 11:23. Maurkice Pouncey is the center.

Maurkice Pouncey was still one of the more athletic centers in the NFL last season, and he was still a dynamic puller. Pouncey has eyes on the middle linebacker while he’s pulling, and when David DeCastro makes that block Pouncey effortlessly changes targets and takes out the safety.

At the end of the play you can see Pouncey roll his ankle. Late in the season Pouncey was still giving his full effort, but the wear and tear of football took its toll.

Week 8, fourth quarter, 11:53. Maurkice Pouncey is the center.

One of Pouncey’s weaknesses in recent years has been when he’s manned up on a bigger and more powerful defensive tackle. Here he’s facing Brandon Williams (#98) and while he gives ground, he’s in control of the block from the start and his quarterback is safe from Williams.

Also note the loop #48 runs, and how it affects the blocking. That’s Pouncey’s man if he comes up the middle, when he loops outside he becomes Feiler’s man. The only one who misplays the rush is Alejandro Villanueva, who helps against the linebacker, allowing the defensive end a free rush at his quarterback.

The Steelers brought back B.J. Finney, who backed up Maurkice Pouncey for four years, starting 13 games in that time. In 2019 he started 3 games at center when Pouncey was hurt, including the Steelers week 13 win over Cleveland.

2019 Week 13, fourth quarter, 2:32. B.J. Finney is the center.

Finney’s job on this play is to move the defensive tackle out of the run lane, and Finney does it, he gets the Browns tackle out of the lane and gets skinny to give Benny Snell room to gain yards. Finney isn’t a mauler in the run game, he’s no Kevin Dotson, but he can still move people when he needs to.

2019 Week 13, second quarter, 14:11. B.J. Finney is the center.

Finney isn’t the athlete Maurkice Pouncey was, but he can still get out on a pull and land his block.

2019 Week 13, second quarter, 13:37. B.J. Finney is the center.

B.J. Finney is a solid pass blocker, especially when he can work in a tighter formation. On this play the Browns are trying to overpower the A gap between Finney and David DeCastro, and Finney locks his arm with DeCastro like a game of red rover. Devlin Hodges gets himself in trouble by leaving the pocket on this play, when stepping up, or even escaping through the middle was a better option.

2019 Week 13, second quarter, 7:30. B.J. Finney is the center.

While Finney is very good working closely with his line mates, he isn’t as good in space, and here his movement with the slide leaves a big opening in the middle, and the linebacker is able to run straight at Devlin Hodges.

The Point:

Maurkice Pouncey wasn’t the same player in 2020 he was in his prime, but when he was healthy he was still one of the best centers in the NFL. The problem is he wasn’t healthy as often, and that hurt his performance.

B.J. Finney was a very good lineman in 2019, with few weaknesses and solid overall play. It’s why teams viewed him as a potential starter heading into 2020. While his 2020 season was incredibly disappointing, if Finney can get back to his 2019 level of play he should be a fine starter, and a good bridge to the day Kendrick Green can take over. Exactly when that day will be depends not only of the development of Green but also the play of Finney.