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Steelers Film Room: Ben stays hot and the defensive line continues to improve

The Pittsburgh Steelers are getting great play from their Big-Three on offense: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. More surprisingly, the Steelers are getting much better play from their defensive line, and that can pay big dividends as the Steelers move into the second half of the season.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens, much like the Steelers in previous years, are going through an attempted upgrade of their offensive line. Their draft picks Gino Gradkowski and Michael Oher didn't pan out. The Ravens squeezed everything they could out of Bryant McKinnie during their Super Bowl run. Whereas the Steelers have built their offensive line through the draft, the Ravens acquired left tackle Eugene Monroe and center Jeremy Zuttah via free agency. These free-agent acquisitions have been supplemented by 2013 fifth-round draft pick Rick Wagner, the current right tackle. None of these three were starters at the beginning of last season.

The bad news for the Ravens is that their new-look offensive line was dominated by the Steelers on Sunday night. They struggled mightily in both the running and passing games. Baltimore, much like the Steelers of years past, needs to run the ball consistently for the rest of their offense to work. The Steelers set the tone for the game on the very first play:


The Ravens struggled to block Steve McLendon during this game. They were absolutely dominated by Cameron Heyward. The Ravens tried to double-team Heyward all night and single-block McLendon. Heyward destroys the double-team on this play. He's aligned pre-snap on the guard's outside shoulder, meaning he's a B-gap player. If the tackle comes off of this block to attempt to get to the linebacker, Heyward has to make the tackle in B gap. Not only does he make the tackle, but he drives the guard into the backfield.

This is the definition of gap integrity and Heyward maintains B gap. Now, if you look at the top of the screen, you will see Cam Thomas being knocked out of his gap. But, he's bailed out by McLendon whose penetration destroys any chance at a cutback.

I watched every running play of this game a few times and Thomas wasn't this bad throughout. He's a bridge player until Stephon Tuitt is ready to play full-time. Additionally, Brett Keisel cannot play a large amount of snaps. As we saw last year, when Keisel gets hurt, it takes a long time for him to recover from injury. Thomas is slowly getting getting better, but it's the sustained dominance of Heyward and McLendon that has led to the improved run defense.

This clip shows much of the same. Heyward doesn't blow up the double-team as violently as he did on the other play, but he doesn't get moved either. He also allows Lawrence Timmons to run free and attack the line of scrimmage. Once again, McLendon dominates the center.

The Ravens want to run a 2-back offense, but they don't have anyone to block McLendon. It's not going to get any easier next year as Tuitt continues to develop. Tuitt has the talent to be the best defensive lineman on the team. The potential for this defensive line in the coming years is tantalizing.

Of course, the offense seems to be capitalizing in a big way on the investments made via the draft over the past few years. Remember when the Steelers couldn't draft wide receivers? Not only do the Steelers have talented, young receivers, but they continue to improve in terms of being on the same page as Roethlisberger. Here, the Steelers victimize the Ravens with one of the oldest route combinations in football, the smash route.

The corner has to continue to get depth to his deep third. Instead, he hangs on the hitch-route, thus opening the window for Martavis Byrant. But because of the design of the play, the corner is really put into a bind. Matt Spaeth is wide open because Heath Miller pulls the coverage towards him with the quick drag route he runs. Secondly, Ben has a clean pocket which allows him to pump the hitch-route. This freezes the corner. Finally, Ben delivers the ball as Bryant breaks out into the deep corner-route. The timing doesn't allow the corner to recover late. So with this play, you have a combination of great play design, great routes, great protection and great execution. That's what leads to 43 points against a fierce division rival.