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Six Points... on the win over the Titans

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The Steelers may have found the right combination on the offensive line, and it only took them eleven tries. In my Tomlin Report prior to the game in Indianapolis, I noted that Pittsburgh was going to debut its ninth-different line combination since the start of the 2010 season.

As a refresher, here are those nine lines.

From left to right
Week 1, 2010: Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, Trai Essex, Flozell Adams
Week 2, 2010: Jonathan Scott, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Essex, Adams
Week 3, 2010: Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Doug Legursky, Adams
Week 9, 2010: Scott, Ramon Foster, Pouncey, Essex, Adams
Week 10, 2010: Scott, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Adams
SBXLV, 2010: Scott, Kemoeatu, Legursky, Foster, Adams
Week 1, 2011: Scott, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Legursky, Willie Colon
Week 2, 2011: Scott, Foster, Pouncey, Legursky, Marcus Gilbert
Week 3, 2011: Scott, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Legursky, Gilbert

In the two games since, Pittsburgh fielded two more line combinations:

Week 4, 2011: Essex, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 5, 2011: Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert

For those of you keeping track: yes, the Steelers have fielded a different starting line for each game this season, and changed more than one starter in four of the five weeks.

The offense in week five had a different feel to it – a shorter, quicker, balanced attack – most likely to keep pressure off the newest line, which included a tackle going in on just three days of practice in Max Starks.

Even with that offensive protection, the line showed something that hadn’t been seen in the four other games this season: they were in sync.

An offensive line, when it’s constructed properly, is greater than the sum of its parts. A line made up of lesser talent that plays as a unit can stand up to a line full of All-Pros thrown together.

Starks was a rock on the left side, keeping pressure off of Ben – with some help from Legursky and a few chips of course. When Legursky wasn’t helping the veteran, he was handling Kemo’s role of the pulling guard to great effect. Maurkice Pouncey is, of course, Maurkice Pouncey.

The right side (Foster and Gilbert), which the coaching staff opted to keep together before Legursky was forced into a fill-in role for Kemoeatu, is so-so in pass protection, but the duo makes up for it with a strong push in the running game.

The results were there: only one sack of Ben Roethlisberger and the team’s best rushing performance of the season.

Scott may replace the injured Gilbert this week (for line combo #12), but the team should insert the rookie once he’s healthy. Chris Kemoeatu may return to the lineup once he’s healthy as well, or the team could stick with the more-athletic Legursky, who is less of a run blocker and more of a pass protector.

Perhaps it’s just the rose-colored glasses granted by a dominant win, but if I were the coaching staff, I’d run out lucky line #11 until it lets me down.

A lot has been made of Mendenhall vs. Redman/Dwyer. If you’ve read the last two six points, you already know that I’m in favor of the latter option long-term (and short-term for the most part).

Critics of the latter will point out that the duo managed just 3.6 yards per carry if you eliminate the 76-yard run by Dwyer (Mendenhall sits at 3.0 flat). They’ll also claim that Mendenhall would have taken that long-gainer to the house, and he probably would.

But the eye-test doesn’t lie. Any viewer of Sunday’s game saw both Redman and Dwyer run with more purpose than Mendenhall had in his four starts. In situations where Mendenhall would try his patented spin-move, Redman was lowering the boom for extra yards.

In addition, they both ran rather consistently, a big contributor to the fact that Ben Roethlisberger’s average dropback came with 7.4 yards to go for a first down, the lowest of any starter in week 5 (hat tip to Football Outsiders for that tidbit).

Mendenhall has shown that he can handle a feature-back workload, but not that he can put up a feature-back performance game-in and game-out. He’d be much better used in a committee with his fellow runners, playing to his strengths while the others play to their own.

The young guns finally showed up on defense. LaMarr Woodley emerged from his four-week hibernation to terrorize Matt Hasselback. The play we he sacked both the quarterback and his fullback was my personal favorite moment of the game, and showed the type of play Woodley is capable of at his best.

Timmons successfully made the transition from inside to outside linebacker and, an early mistake aside, played one of his best games of the season as well.

On the line, both Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward made their presences felt. Hood was a big key to collapsing the line while Heyward showed that a 3-4 end can still rush the passer, notching a sack and a forced fumble. He should have had another sack, but Matt Hasselbeck took an intentional grounding penalty instead.

Chris Hoke is being praised for a great game, and rightly so, but Brett Keisel was my man on Sunday. The defense looks like a different animal when Brett Keisel (and the animal he wears on his face) is out on the field. I’ve said it more than once this year, and I’ll probably say it many more times this season: no lineman is better at knocking down passes than Keisel. His latest swat went right into the hands of Woodley for the team’s second takeaway this season.

Make no mistake, a guy who can stop passes before they even leave the backfield in a valuable asset to have. Not to mention, the beard is stout against the run and responsible as a 3-4 end in pass-rushing situations.

Sunday’s game plan can’t be a one-hit wonder. In my first point, I mentioned that the line benefitted from a shorter passing attack, one in which Big Ben executed more three-step, rhythm passing plays than his usual backyard assault.

While Ben certainly should keep his backyard style on the board when his foot heals, he would be wise to mix it with a heavy dose of the quick-strike offense he exhibited against Tennesseee.

If he can manage that over the final eleven games, he’ll stay healthy, his line (and the offense in general) will look a hell of a lot better, and this team will win some games.

Troy Polamalu is frighteningly good, and the key is that he’s been freelancing more than he ever has in previous seasons. He did quite a bit of it in his early career before settling into a more traditional safety role in recent years. But this season, he’s moving around again; he’s blitzing again; he’s breaking up plays before they even get started.

Most importantly, he’s back inside the opponent’s head. With opposing offenses forced to account for the extreme variance of Troy’s assignments each and every play, they’re missing some of the minor moves they should be making. That, in turn, could give a guy like Woodley the half-step he needs to turn a washout into a drive-killing sack.


DON'T FORGET! Ken Torgent will be hosting a LIVE chat during Sunday's game against the Jaguars. The chat will open shortly before the scheduled kickoff for 1:00 PM. Ken will be LIVE from Heinz Field, providing commentary and taking your questions.

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