The physicality of the three Steelers-Ravens games last season was legendary, kind of like the Mickey Ward-Arturo Gatti boxing trilogy for fight fans, and this one figured to be another "two chin-strap game." So I equipped myself with dos bags of Peanut M&Ms and planned a little differently this time. I wanted to focus on massive rookie Ramon Foster, who was starting at right guard for the Steelers in place of injured Chris Kemoeatu. And this is what I saw:
* On the sideline, Foster appeared to be turbo-lating inside (that's when your insides are churning as fast as your heart is beating). Ramon had that look in his eyes that said, "Things are moving faster than I'm comfortable with." I've seen a good number of young men (and been one myself) up close just before a kickoff on their first start, and it's an intense time. Practice speed is practice speed. Game speed is another animal altogether.
* Foster handled the pressure just fine. His run blocking was solid. Even better was his pass blocking. M&T Bank stadium is a very loud place to make your first start. The silent count, which was used most of the time, can be nerve-wracking for a veteran, and it can make a rookie implode. None of that happened here.
* Overall, Ramon was very good in his pass blocking. He's worked hard to improve it and has some decent feet and isn't easily unbalanced. Where he lacks is where all young guys have some deficiencies, in the more subtle aspects of the game.
For instance, early in the game, the Ravens had a bubble look over Foster. Haloti Ngata was positioned as a defensive end over Max Starks. Ray Lewis was on the second level as a linebacker and Kelly Gregg was on the nose of Justin Hartwig. At the snap, the Steelers were in a wall left, where every lineman on the left side takes their outside or left-handed gap. Gregg hit the gap between Hartwig and Foster, while Ngata looped behind Gregg hitting into Hartwig (who was called for holding on the Dennis Dixon scramble). Ramon got himself picked because he turned too much and didn't take into account that Gregg might be a penetrator. Instead, Foster would've been better served giving ground and staying square to the line of scrimmage – in the event of a Gregg gap stunt – to eyeball Ngata rather than set out towards him. Setting back allows for a moment to identify Gregg's charge and see Ngata taking a loop path rather than a hard inside charge. Ramon has to see, out of the corner of his eye, Gregg on his first step, but you can't if you turn too much. This happened early in the game, and Ramon told me later, as we walked onto the plane together, that "Things were moving real fast early on." It's all part of the learning experience.
* Keeping your jersey "clean" and not getting held on a stunt is another area that can haunt your playing days, and I'm not just talking about rookies. But the 350-pound Ngata was surprisingly called for defensive holding on a twist stunt. Ngata grabbed Foster by the shoulder pads and dragged him into Starks as a Ravens linebacker shot the opened gap. This is rarely called, but tonight it was. Ramon must extend on his punches to keep from being grabbed. But frankly, when a man the size of Ngata wants to grab hold of you, nothing short of a perfectly executed punch and some silicon sprayed on your jersey (not that I know anything about that!) will deter a man. If you allow yourself to be grabbed, somebody's getting smoked, and it's usually the quarterback. That's why the tactic's illegal.
* Foster's run blocking was also very good. His deficiencies in that area were also typical of a young player. On the pike play that normally has Big Juicy pulling to his right and leading up the hole, Ramon was a tad slow and tentative. Reading on the run is a skill set in and of itself. Doing it full speed takes some time, and knowing who the most dangerous player to pick up, instead of the Xs and Os drawn up in the book, is another skill he'll develop given enough time.
Every play comes with a pre-set design as to who picks up whom. Once the ball is snapped, things happen out there, and on the go you have to make a snap decision as to whom is the most dangerous given the overall scheme of things. Again, that is experience, something more reps will provide.
* Foster not only played well, he has plenty of upside if he maintains his singular focus to improve. He didn't get Dixon killed, slugged it out, and played hard. As I said to him as we boarded the plane, "You're already ahead of the game." I told him the story of my first start against Dallas and playing against future Hall of Famer Randy White. I gave up a sack to White on the third snap. Ramon looked at me as if he were surprised I got a second start. Wise guy.