On the Steelers: Coach good at plugging line holes
It's time for Sean Kugler to again whip out his slide rule, sprinkle the magic dust or use the hammer he keeps to pound all those square pegs into round holes. It's happening again.
One and likely two more starting offensive linemen will disappear this week when the Steelers prepare to play one of the best teams in the NFL, one that has given them the most fits the past decade plus 2 -- the New England Patriots.
That is nothing new for Kugler, either replacing the parts or preparing for the Patriots. He coaches the offensive line after coming from Buffalo, where he coached the past three seasons in the same division that featured the Patriots.
- Game: Steelers (6-2) vs. New England Patriots (6-2), Heinz Field.
- When: 8:20 p.m. Sunday.
- TV: WPXI.
- Line: Steelers by 41/2.
Last season in Buffalo, he received his PhD in line plugging as six linemen's seasons were ended by injuries. At one point, he started four rookies among the five linemen. He used 10 starting combinations in 16 games. Somehow, the dreadful Bills managed to run the ball -- 16th in the NFL, three spots higher than the Steelers last season.
Now, Kugler is going through it again. Sunday against the Patriots will be the fourth starting line combination in nine games and will include new starting left tackle Jonathan Scott, who started eight games in Buffalo last season.
Max Starks was placed on injured reserve and will have surgery to repair a herniated disc near his neck. Rookie Chris Scott was activated off the physically unable-to-perform list on the last day the Steelers had to do so. Also, Chris Kemoeatu has a sprained MCL and a sprained ankle, did not practice Wednesday and might not play against New England.
More holes to fill, a Kugler speciality. He had to do it on the run in the heat in Tennessee, when virtually every linemen left at some point except rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, and again Monday in Cincinnati.
Coach Mike Tomlin would not allow Kugler to speak to the media Wednesday, but his linemen gushed about their new coach.
"Coach has a good knack for seeing what kind of personnel he needs for what type of scheme -- running or passing," Scott said.
Trai Essex, who will start his third consecutive game after missing four with an ankle injury, believes Kugler is a big reason for the line's improvement this season. That includes sacks allowed. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 50 times in 15 games last season. He has been sacked seven times in four games this season, about half his previous pace.
"He brought a little bit of fundamental stuff from Buffalo and a little bit of their run scheme as well because they had a lot of success up there with trading bodies on the offensive line and running backs," Essex said.
Kugler, built like a cross between an offensive guard and a Russian weightlifter, reminds Essex a lot of Russ Grimm, the Steelers' line coach until he left for Arizona in 2007.
"You can tell a guy to do it but after that it's how you motivate a guy to keep on doing it and those certain drills you do to help muscle memory. He brings a lot of offensive line drills that help develop muscle memory better than, I guess, we've had in the past."
Scott will need all that muscle memory and more as Roethlisberger's top security on the left side.
"I have all the confidence in the world those guys will keep me upright," Roethlisberger said.
Sunday night's game features the two quarterbacks with the best career winning percentage among active players in the NFL: Tom Brady at .763 (103-32) and Roethlisberger at .700 (63-27).
"I think he's the best to play the game right now," Roethlisberger said. "I love watching him on TV or live. ... Watching him go against this great defense is going to be fun as well."
What's with Tomlin and a 6-2 record?
In each of his four seasons as Steelers coach, his teams have won six of their first eight games. They have followed with mixed results. In 2007, they improved to 7-2 but went 4-4 in the second half of the season and lost their first playoff game at home. In '08, they matched their first half with another 6-2 and won the Super Bowl. Last season, they lost five in a row after starting 6-2 and did not reach the playoffs.
And one more interesting stat: The Steelers have held opponents to 75 yards rushing or fewer in each of the first eight games, the only time in NFL history a defense has done that.
Casey Hampton has remained in the game more often when the Steelers switch from their base 3-4 defense to their nickel or dime packages when one lineman comes off the field. In the past, Hampton almost always came off for an extra defensive back while the two ends remained. Recently, one of the ends leaves and Hampton stays. It happened often Monday night in Cincinnati, when the Steelers played more nickel/dime than they have all season. "We're not going to let people dictate to us when Casey plays," Tomlin said. "At times you get the feeling that people put three wideouts on the field to get him off the field, and that's not necessarily going to be the case moving forward." ... All three players who left Monday's game with concussions were back on the practice field after passing tests -- running backs Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore and safety Will Allen. Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) and tight end Heath Miller (knee) did not practice.
First Published November 11, 2010 12:00 am