Steelers Lagging in AFC North's OL Arms Race
By Frank Tursic
Posted Mar 23, 2010
Frank Tursic takes a statistical approach to identify the offensive linemen who can best help the Steelers regain a tactical edge in the AFC North Division.
One hundred years ago, the nations of Great Britain and Germany were in a naval arms race. Kaiser Wilhelm II, of Germany, knew that any confrontation with Britain would certainly involve control for the high seas. In this realm, the British Royal Navy reigned supreme. They were the bullies-on-the-block, and would have to be dealt with eventually.
Being a smart man, Wilhelm knew he couldn’t match the Royal Navy in sheer numbers, but, instead would rely on a technically superior design of ship called the dreadnought, in order to beat the bully at his own game.
More commonly known as the battleship today, the dreadnought was a revolutionary design emphasizing size, speed and firepower. German quality would make up for British quantity as the naval balance of power slowly shifted, setting the scene which eventually led to World War I.
If this lead-in seems opaque, I bring it up, because, we’ve been in the middle of an AFC North arms race that has seen the Steelers lagging badly.
Football is similar to warfare in that you impose your will on another to attain achievable goals. In Wilhelm’s case, it was the domination of Europe, in football, it’s domination of your division to put you in position to win the Super Bowl.
Well, Pittsburgh has been the Norris bully-on-the-block for quite sometime now, but it was after the team’s championship run in 2005 that the opposition finally decided to do something about it.
AFC North teams must play a physical brand of football; and that ethos remains true even in todays pass-happy NFL.
As former Ravens Scout Daniel Jeremiah was quoted as saying: “In Baltimore, we felt that our team had lost a little bit of our physical nature on offense. So, in one draft, we chose Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda. We began to build a bully.”
And with that, the arms race was on.
In this case, however, the arms race was not about dreadnoughts, but offensive linemen. Because, as Jeremiah also pointed out, “You determine your team’s attitude and style by what you do at those five spots on the OL.”
And, as the Germans did 100 years before them, the Steelers’ opposition chose quality over quantity.
Quality, in football terms, is measured in draft value (DV), so if we use the DV chart we find the following since 2006:
Offensive Line Draft Value
Baltimore 2044 pts Low Rd 2
Cincinnati 2105 pts Mid Rd 2
Cleveland 3070 pts Mid Rd 1
Pittsburgh 358 pts Mid Rd 4
Pittsburgh has lagged badly in terms of drafting impact offensive linemen, selecting six college prospects, on average, in the middle of the 4th round. Compare this to the competition where they’ve been selecting players, on average, in the 1st and 2nd rounds.
And, while Pittsburgh was drafting skill-position players early, the competition, with their OL bolstered with big, athletic talent, have become the new bullies-on-the-block. Call it an attitude on offense, as Jeremiah pointed out, since it has allowed them to run the ball very effectively.
NFL Rushing Rank
Baltimore ‘06 – 25th ‘09 – 5th
Cincinnati ‘06 – 26th ‘09 – 8th
Cleveland ‘06 – 31st ‘09 – 9th
Pittsburgh ‘06 – 10th ‘09 – 19th
Of course, Steelers President Art Rooney II publicly stated after the season the team must be able to run the ball more effectively. The organization also responded by firing OL coach Larry Zierlein and replacing him with Sean Kugler. Kugler is known as a players’ coach and will look to game-plan to his players’ strengths. The problem is he’s been dealt a cast of un-athletic and average talent which makes any kind of creativity in his design hard to accomplish.
If we look for signs from his days at Buffalo, the team became frustrated with its inability to convert short-yardage situations despite having quality running backs on the roster. The coaching staff decided they needed “finishers” who could compete against the likes of Vince Wilfork, Kris Jenkins and Jason Ferguson. “In a 3-4 division, the inside three (OL) set the tempo,” Kugler said.
In addition, the screen and draw game became nonexistent due to a lack of athletic talent along the OL, limiting the play calling options available to the offensive coordinator. “If you’re not a good screen team or a good draw team with guys in space,” said Kugler, “they [the defense] can tee off on you.”
To address these areas in 2009, the Bills drafted two athletic interior OL (Eric Wood, Andy Levitre) in the first two rounds and added another through free agency (Geoff Hangartner).
The issues Kugler experienced in Buffalo are similar to what he’s stepping into in Pittsburgh. Expect him to look for the same type of players in the upcoming draft -- athletic interior OL with the ability to move in space and “finish”.
I’ll use the following parameters to set an athletic threshold: 40 time – 5.30 sec. Shuttle – 4.80 sec. Broad Jump – 8.0 ft. These targets will be used to screen the current crop of draft prospects down to a manageable list of likely candidates. Keep in mind these targets are considered average for OL, but a 5.0 40, 4.6 shuttle, and 9.0 ft BJ are considered elite.
For comparison, only Chris Kemoeatu, on the Steelers roster exceeded at least two of the three targets, while players such as Joe Thomas, Marshall Yanda, Andrew Whitworth, Grubbs, Alex Mack, Michael Oher, and Jonathan Luigs exceeded all three.
What follows is a list of candidate draft targets.
Matt Tennant (40 – 5.15, shuttle – 4.62, BJ – 8.02)
JD Walton (40 – 5.19, shuttle – 4.69, BJ – 8.05)
Notes: Both Tennant and Walton would be great Steelers targets. They are athletic and technically sound players who play to the whistle. Maurkice Pouncey does not make the cut with a below average shuttle time and broad jump. While he’s close, his numbers are not comparable to previous first-round draft picks such as Alex Mack and Nick Mangold. Pouncey remains a quality player, but is a somewhat limited athlete not worth considering at 18, and should only receive consideration as part of a trade down.
Mike Iupati (40 – 5.24, shuttle – 4.93, BJ – 7.0
Marshall Newhouse (40 – 4.99, shuttle – 4.60, BJ – 8.01)
Shawn Lauvao (40 – 5.22, shuttle – 4.51, BJ – 8.05)
Notes: Iupati has good speed for such a large individual (331 pounds), but is a little stiff in his lateral movement which may limit his ability to play tackle. He’s a bit raw with technique as well, but should be a Steelers target in the first round. Newhouse displayed elite levels of athleticism at the combine and could go as early as the second round. Lauvao is an athletic sleeper prospect who played against quality competition at Arizona State. He’s also a solid technician, and was strong in the positional drills at the combine.
Rodger Saffold (40 – 5.21, shuttle – 4.67, BJ – 9.05)
John Jerry (40 – 5.15, shuttle – 4.69, BJ – 8.05)
Notes: Saffold put on a show at the combine and that, combined with his performance last season, may elevate him into the bottom of the first round as he displayed the necessary footwork and technique to play left tackle as well. Jerry performed better than Iupati at almost the same weight (328lbs). His shuttle and 40 times are near elite given his size, and if he can keep his weight under control he could become a great pro.
Guard: (zone blocking):
Jeff Byers (40 – 5.20, Incomplete on others)
Shelly Smith (40 – 5.03, shuttle – 4.71, BJ – 9.04)
Note: Byers can play any interior OL position bringing and is extremely athletic, being able to block defenders 20-30 yards downfield. Look for his USC pro day results at the end of March. He’s slightly overage, but has a ton of experience, and is similar to Hangartner in Buffalo, a Kugler-type player. Smith is another ZBS-type from Colorado State with impressive physical skills. Zane Beadles and Jon Asamoah have not fully tested due to injuries, but should receive consideration as well in the 2nd-3rd round area.
Any of the players listed would represent upgrades for the Steelers, adding capabilities not currently on the roster. Only after addressing OL with quality players, like their competition, will the balance of line power slowly start to shift once again in the never-ending arms race to regain supremacy in the physical AFC North.