Steelers Must Innovate to Protect Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers press corps is better for the presence of Jim Wexell. I first discovered Wexell in the late 1990’s when he wrote for the now defunct site (or at least I think that’s what it was called.)

Wexell always brought readers something extra, something that could not be found in the Tribune-Review or Post Gazette. Since then he’s gone on to found his own site, The Steel City Insider, and he also writes for the Steelers Digest.

Wexell’s Interesting Stat on Pass Protection

The Steelers glaring weakness is their offensive line. The unit’s health has been under assault since before the season, and the storm has not abated since. After one game, Mike Tomlin described the team’s rotation as “musical chairs.”

Can you quantify the impact of repeated injuries on the line? Jim Wexell thinks he can.

By Wexell’s tally, as published in the the Steelers Digest, opponents only sacked Steelers quarterbacks one time in eighteen drop backs with Max Starks playing at left tackle.

And what about without Max Starks?

Without Max Starks at tackle, opponents are sacking Steelers quarterbacks 1 time in every nine drop backs.

That two-fold increase in sacks itself indicates the tremendous pressure which Ben Roethlisberger has been under, and it does not account for knockdowns (not to mention cheap shots) that fall short of sacks.

The line pulled off a major feat against Cincinnati – no starter had to leave the line up for a significant number of snaps. This does not sound like much, and in fact it might not mean much, but quality offensive line play begins with cohesion, and in that sense keeping the same five guys on the field is a plus.

Expecting a dramatic improvement at this late juncture in the season remains unlikely.

An Innovation for Improving Pass Protection?

The cupboard is thin. Both Chris Kemoatu and Flozell Adams are playing through high ankle sprains. Jonathan Scott appears to be the weak link in the unit, but who to replace him with?

Tony Hills did get some playing time early in the year, but the coaches appear in no rush to bring him into the line up. Chris Scott is a rookie who yet to line up for as much as a preseason snap.

Trai Essex?

Essex started at right guard for the Steelers, and Mike Tomlin spared no words in informing that he benched Essex for performance reasons. Essex did do well against Baltimore, but the last time he got significant time at left tackle was the Jacksonville game of 2008, and it was not pretty?

The Steelers, it seems, must innovate.

Why Not Try David Johnson?

Third string tight end David Johnson has been one of 2010’s surprises. His run blocking has improved, and his big plays in the passing game against Baltimore amounted to a minor shock and won him this site’s unsung hero award.

The Steelers have lined Johnson up in the backfield to block for Rashard Mendenhall, and Johnson has been effective?

Why not line Johnson up in the backfield on passing plays to provide additional protection for Ben?

Yes, this would potentially remove a weapon, which is less than ideal in obvious passing situations. But, depending upon down and distance, Johnson’s presence in the backfield could suggest a run, and/or he could be used in motion.

Both scenarios likely offer a better prospect of protecting Ben than calling an empty set on 3rd and 1.

Perhaps a million reasons exist to explain why this would not work – Bruce Arians and Sean Kugler do know a little more about pass protection than I do.

But if none of those reasons are relevant then the Steelers need to consider using David Johnson in the backfield as a pass blocker.

They have little to lose, and their lineman need all of the help they can get.

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3 thoughts on “Steelers Must Innovate to Protect Roethlisberger

  1. Thanks for commenting.

    I have asked about this in Bouchette and Dulac’s chats for weeks and weeks, and they have not taken the questions.

    Bouchette does not surprise me, as he is quite selective. But Dulac usually takes everything.

  2. I don’t think it’s a radical concept; when the Steelers are getting destroyed on the line, it’s common to see Heath Miller next to Ben, or the RB or both.

    You’re right, why not Johnson? I think that’s mostly because Heath Miller is a freak, and he provides an outlet target for when the line breaks down. Ben can flip it to him quick, and he’s the far superior athlete between he and Johnson.

    If/when Johnson is in that first TE role, he’ll be back there.

    I see your deeper point, though, in having Johnson specifically back there, regardless of the TE depth for that game. Again, I would say Miller is a better all-around blocker, and picking up the rusher who got through the line isn’t the same as blocking in-line.

    But let’s wait and see, because it doesn’t look like Miller’s going to play again this week. Rest assured, our line is going to break down against the Jets, and with the Jets starting a corner at SS this week, Pittsburgh will want to try a deep pass or two. When the line is breaking down, will they want Spaeth or Johnson back there? I’ll bet they’ll go with Johnson.

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