On the Steelers: New stat draws line on offensive line woes

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Mike Tomlin answered plenty of questions Tuesday about the shortcomings of the Steelers' offense, which has produced precisely one touchdown in the past 11 quarters, and that thanks mostly to safety Troy Polamalu.

The coach fielded questions about problems in the "red zone," about "17 holding penalties" in the past four games, about Ben Roethlisberger "getting hit" with little response from the refs or the league and about the quarterback's "injuries."

Tomlin offered little in the way of reasons or solutions, but there seems to be an answer so obvious it played the role of the elephant in the press room: The Steelers' offensive line is not very good.

That's not only the opinion of many but now a statistical "fact" from a formula devised by the mathematicians at STATS, one of the top statistical services covering sports and one used widely by the television networks covering the NFL.

The new stat, conveniently, was announced on Tuesday as the "New York Life Protection Index" with its first weekly ranking. The offensive line of Indianapolis ranks first with a rating of 90.6. The Steelers' line ranks 29th with a rating of 44.9.

The "protection index" does not rank lines in terms of overall effectiveness, just in the passing game. According to the website that will be updated weekly, "While the New York Life Protection Index is calculated using a proprietary formula, the fundamentals are comprised of the length of a team's pass attempts combined with penalties by offensive linemen, sacks allowed and quarterback hurries and knockdowns."

It is not surprising that the Steelers' line ranks way down there. Roethlisberger has been the most sacked quarterback in the league since 2006 and now all those holding calls are being added to the fire. Holding penalties often occur because linemen are getting beat to the quarterback by a defender.

"We've been holding and we need to stop," was Tomlin's solution to the problem on Tuesday. "We need to cut down on holding. No question holding occurs on every snap in the National Football League. I think anybody in the industry will acknowledge that. What we need to do is cut down on the actions that are triggering the flags, which is grabbing and restricting the jersey coming away from the body and so forth."

The Steelers' line has been hit with a rash of injuries this season that wiped out their two starting offensive tackles -- Willie Colon to a ruptured Achilles tendon in June and Max Starks to neck surgery in November. The team has had five different starting lines this season. Only rookie center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Flozell Adams have started every game.

But, as the STATS protection index shows, it's not a new problem for the Steelers.

Since 2006, only one team that finished outside the top 12 in the index formula has made it to the Super Bowl -- the Steelers in 2008.

The Steelers rank 19th overall on offense with an average of 332.4 yards per game, 10th in rushing with 120.2 yards per game, tied for 17th in average per rush at 4.1 yards, and 18th in passing with 212.2 yards per game.

Steelers quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times, tied for sixth most in the NFL.

Educational purpose

Troy Polamalu not only provided another spark to a Steelers victory on Sunday, he provided the rest of the team with a "teaching tool."

That's what Tomlin called it when Polamalu intercepted Carson Palmer's pass at the goal line with fewer than two minutes to go Sunday and the Steelers holding a 16-point lead, and Polamalu decided to lateral it to teammate Bryant McFadden. The ball bounced around before McFadden recovered it.

"We desire to educate our guys to situational football," said Tomlin, who declined to talk about the play after the game on Sunday. "It wasn't a good situational-football maneuver. ... His reaction kind of sums up the situation, but it's also something to learn from.

"That's what you try to do this time of year when things come up such as that lateral, particularly when it doesn't prevent you from winning. I think it's a great teaching tool, just like the muffed punt by Antonio Brown. We're in the football game, a punt falls short, it's rolling in the ground -- what we want is possession of the football. Too risky of a maneuver under the circumstances."

Injury report

Tomlin's report on his team's injury situation this week: "We're not in too bad of shape."

Tight end Heath Miller worked out Tuesday morning after passing his concussion tests. He missed Sunday's game against the Bengals. Tomlin said Miller will participate fully in practice today.

Polamalu, who aggravated his calf/Achilles injury Sunday, will follow the same procedure he has for a month; he will not practice today or Thursday.

Tackle Flozell Adams played through a sprained ankle injured in the previous game and might be limited in practice this week. Tomlin said Adams did not play to his normal level last Sunday because of the injury. Cornerback Bryant McFadden "continues to deal with a hamstring."

Tomlin listed others he called minor bumps and bruises: Cornerback Anthony Madison (knee bruise) and linebacker Keyaron Fox (hyperextended left elbow).

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com . First Published December 15, 2010 5:00 AM


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