The Atlanta Falcons certainly devoted enough resources to the defensive line in the offseason, with big-money contracts for nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson, and the No. 37-overall pick on Ra'shede Hageman. The moves haven't really paid off for the Falcons, who have had a below-average run defense and an anemic pass rush.
But the big men gave the Pittsburgh Steelers some trouble on Sunday, holding the team to its second-lowest rushing output on the season and creating some havoc in the passing game without much in the way of edge-rushing talent.
Hageman put a damper on the Steelers' second drive, giving guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams more they could handle in collapsing a double-team, freeing Soliai to stunt around unblocked for a sack. The Steelers opted for an missed shot at the end zone on second down, leaving an unmanageable 3rd-and-17. The Steelers settled for a field goal.
On the Steelers' first offensive play of the second half, Le'Veon Bell posted one of the smooth 11-yard gains Steeler fans have become accustomed to seeing of late. Notably absent on the play were Hageman and Soliai. The next play, Bell missed what looked to be a crease to the left, and was stopped for a one-yard gain.
The drive stalled when Antonio Brown was flagged for penalties that seemed pretty spurious to me. To me, the real culprit was a missed opportunity to build upon a rare success in the running game.
For a team that sometimes struggles with size, that was an opportunity to press the advantage the offensive line had against smaller linemen in Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters, who are 300-pound, penetrating 4-3 DTs, compared with the 350-pound Soliai and the 320-pound Hageman. That's questionable play-calling, to me. I think offensive coordinator Todd Haley needs to exploit those favorable matchups.
At the same time, Ben Roethlisberger's a more cerebral player than seemingly most observers give him credit for being. And while some of his no-huddle performances this season have been less than ideal, I think the opportunity exists to use the no-huddle to keep the opposing team's smaller players on the field. The offense is seemingly always ready to sprint to the line on fourth down to try to catch the defense off guard. Why not have the option in place to press the advantage in the run game when the defense appears vulnerable?
On the first play of the next drive, DeCastro helped center Maurkice Pouncey with Soliai before heading to the second level, leaving Adams alone on Hageman. And if it was a healthy Marcus Gilbert instead of Adams, you might not be looking at a 6-yard loss. But you're probably not looking at a meaningful gain, either.
The Steelers converted two big pass plays, and they converted the winning score behind DeCastro and fullback/tight end Will Johnson on a counter play, because the play had to work at least once in Atlanta, right?
So the drive with the promising start fizzled out, and the drive that began with calamity ended in triumph. And all's well that ends well.
But the Steelers' offensive line, like much of the team as a whole, seems to be built upon the expectation that you can take guys who can run and make them stronger a lot more easily than you can take strong guys and make them faster.
DeCastro is a prime example. He's probably the best right guard in the league on the move as a pulling guard, but still has room for growth as a drive blocker and in terms of anchoring in pass protection. The same remains true of Pouncey, although his ability to take on Soliai single-handedly was an indispensable part of springing Bell for the touchdown.
The young offensive line is going to get better in phone booth battles in years to come. But for now, they're going to find some stout defensive lines that will give them trouble, as was the case when they put up 91 rushing yards in two weeks against the Ravens and Jets. The Falcons joined those teams in making the Steelers' offense one-dimensional.
Moving forward, I think the team can benefit from being better prepared to trap the opposing team in unfavorable matchups in the running game. They'll face Dontari Poe and the Kansas City Chiefs next week. The New England Patriots have Vince Wilfork. Terrance Knighton anchors the Denver Broncos' defensive line. Haloti Ngata would be eligible to return for the playoffs for the Baltimore Ravens.
Simply put, the Steelers are going to be facing matchups against players who can short-circuit the Steelers' run game.
And it's not that they can't win those matchups. But the opportunity exists to follow up a third-and-long conversion by rushing to the line and keeping the opponent in sub-package personnel. Bell's prowess as a receiver and Heath Miller's prowess as a blocker means that a spread offense and a power running play can use the same personnel.
So why not use that versatility to keep the opponent's beef on the bench?