Steelers still talking the company line when it comes to the O-line


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Like most assistant coaches in charge of a unit, Jack Bicknell Jr. is well aware of the problems of his offensive line. He does not have to be told that Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked seven times and that most of the pressure is coming against his young tackles, Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert.

He does not need to be reminded that the Steelers have rushed for 75 yards -- the lowest two-game total to start a season in franchise history -- or that the offense is averaging a meager 2.4 yards per rush.

And he is well aware that the offensive line is probably receiving the largest dose of blame for the poor performance of the offense, which has scored 19 points in two games, has converted just 7 of 25 third-downs and is scratching to find something that will work for more than just one series.

But Bicknell, who is in his first season with the Steelers, is not worried about his offensive line. He is not ready to panic and give up on his young players, even without their Pro Bowl center and leader, Maurkice Pouncey.

On the contrary, Bicknell believes the offensive line, built with athletic, agile players who were high draft picks, is ready to emerge.

"These guys are at a point where we're going to really start to jell," Bicknell said. "It's not like they're young anymore. I think we're close. Sometimes it doesn't look like we're close, but we are."

There are many who might disagree.

Pro Football Focus, which charts every play at every position of every National Football League team, rates the Steelers offensive line 26th out of 32 teams. The tackles, Gilbert (51st) and Adams (60th), are rated near the bottom of the league, mainly because of their pass-protection deficiencies. ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, a former Steelers running back, said guard David DeCastro is getting steamrolled on bull-rushes.

"They're not playing very good," said former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com. "The loss of the center hurts them a lot, and I don't think Adams and DeCastro have played up to expectations. It's kind of interesting because I know an evaluator who does nothing but evaluate linemen in college and he thought Adams was the best lineman coming out in the draft."

On top of it all, the zone blocking schemes the Steelers spent so much time developing in the offseason and training camp have been non-existent. They have run the stretch play just twice in the first two games, one of them being the play on which Pouncey sustained a season-ending injury. They did not run a zone play Monday night in Cincinnati.

Through it all, Bicknell remains undeterred, convinced the problems on the offensive line are "correctable" mistakes.

"Throughout my career, I've had times where I don't even know what to say to a guy, where he just got killed, and basically that's not the case," Bicknell said. "There's nobody who we just flat-out say, 'Oh my God, we just can't do it.' That's where I get nervous -- where you really don't know what to say, where you had good technique but the guy still ran him over.

"That's not our case here. When we get beat, we can all point to technique errors and say, 'If you do this, it will be better.' That's where I'm encouraged. But we have to get it straight."

Some similarities

The Chicago Bears (2-0), who play at Heinz Field tonight, are not a lot unlike the Steelers.

They have four new starters on their offensive line, including two rookies on the right side -- tackle Kyle Long, who was their first-round pick, and guard Jordan Mills. And, so far, they have been able to make it work.

Quarterback Jay Cutler has been sacked just once for 8 yards in two games, though he has done a good job getting rid of the ball quick and stepping up in pressure. And running back Matt Forte has rushed for 140 yards on 38 carries in two games -- nearly double the amount of rushing yards managed by the Steelers (75).

What's more, the Bears have rallied in the fourth quarter in both victories, finding ways to win while the Steelers have found ways to lose.

"I've played with rookies up front before," Cutler said. "These guys are no different. They want to be out there. They're really talented players, they just haven't had a lot of experience. They haven't been through some of the situations that [Roberto] Garza and [Jermon] Bushrod and [Matt] Slauson have been through. So they're working through that and there is going to be a few bumps in the road. They're like sponges. They're trying to learn everything every day and we're just trying to help them along."

Bears Coach Marc Trestman, who has replaced Lovie Smith, said he didn't have any doubts about beginning his first season with a pair of rookies on the right side.

"We put them in an environment to compete for jobs, and they did, and they continued to improve, not just at a small rate, but at kind of an exponential rate," Trestman said. "They got there quickly. They continue to improve. They're smart guys, they love football and it's certainly good for our room. It's certainly unusual, but there are exceptions, and the guys have done a good job up to this point."

A guaranteed fix

It is unlikely that any two facets of a team catch more blame than the offensive coordinator and the offensive line.

But, unless you watch every snap of every game, and also know each lineman's assignment, it is almost impossible to evaluate offensive-line play. Numbers can help offer some insight, but even numbers can sometimes lead to an incorrect conclusion.

Consider the case of Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, who was sacked more times (51) than any quarterback in the league in 2012. Does that mean he had the worst pass-protecting line in the NFL?

Well, according to Pro Football Focus, maybe not.

Eight of Rodgers' sacks were because of decisions he made -- i.e., checking down because of good coverage. Another two were the results of skill-position players (running backs, tight ends) not picking up the pass rush.

What's more, according to PFF, Rodgers had the sixth-best average time (3.99 seconds) from when the ball is snapped to when he is sacked of any quarterback in the league. Meaning, some of his sacks were as much his fault as his offensive line.

After two games this year, Roethlisberger has been sacked seven times, sixth most in the AFC, and has been under pressure more times per attempt (41.6 percent) than all but five NFL quarterbacks. On at least two sacks, players other than an offensive lineman failed to pick up pass-rushers.

But his average time to throw from snap to sack has been 4.91 seconds, highest in the AFC and second-highest in the league behind Detroit's Matthew Stafford (5.01).

"I guarantee you we'll fix it by Sunday night," said Gilbert, who has allowed three of the seven sacks. "I'm an older dude. I'm going to put it on me. We're going to get the job done. There were some communication errors from being on the road, but we can't use any of that stuff as an excuse. We all know what we have to do. They drafted all of us in the first and second round. We have to go out there and produce."

There is certainly room for improvement.

The return of tight end Heath Miller, who is expected to play and possibly start against the Bears, will eventually go a long way toward improving the run game from a blocking standpoint. And the eventual return of rookie running back Le'Veon Bell from a ligament tear in his foot will also help, mainly because it will allow the Steelers to use more of the outside zone schemes.

Bell has resumed doing team drills but probably won't be ready until next week's game against the Minnesota Vikings in London.

One of the reasons the Steelers didn't use any zone plays in Cincinnati is because they spread the field and used multiple receiver sets on 49 of the attempted 58 scrimmage plays against the Bengals.

"We're going to go back to using it," said running back Isaac Redman. "You'll probably see a little bit more of it this week."

Said Bicknell: "It was never that we're now totally an outside zone team. It was something to complement our other run game. It still is. It's still something we're striving for and still part of our plan."

It's right up there with improving the performance of the offensive line.

Steelers

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published September 22, 2013 4:00 AM


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