Steelers mix and match on line
Look at the numbers and the differences are negligible.
The rushing yards, the yards per carry, the rushing touchdowns and the quarterback sacks are very similar for the Steelers through the first seven games of this season compared to the same juncture a year ago.
So why is new offensive line coach Sean Kugler being lauded for the job he has done with his group while Larry Zierlein was fired for having just about the same production?
It’s what Kugler has had to deal with that has set him apart, and there has been plenty to sort through over the past several months.
• The Steelers have used the same starting line in consecutive weeks only three times.
• Kugler lost Willie Colon to injury before the season started, Max Starks for one game and Trai Essex for four.
• He helped Flozell Adams switch from left to right tackle, then had to deal with him leaving early in four games due to injury or dehydration.
• He has a rookie starting at arguably the most crucial position on the line — center.
• He had two undrafted players in Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster uncharacteristically split series in games during Essex’s absence.
And, still, the line has performed above expectations.
“He has done a good job,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Kugler. “But we are not about patting ourselves on the back, quite frankly.”
Tomlin might want to re-think that.
Kugler’s line has protected the team’s trio of quarterbacks admirably, has helped Rashard Mendenhall become one of the top runners in the NFL and has gone about it with a physical-style mentality.
“He wants us to be physical at all times,” Essex said. “He tells us it’s OK to make mistakes, but just make sure you hit somebody while you are messing up.”
Relatively speaking, Kugler doesn’t have the luxury of the top players at the position from which to choose.
The starting line consists of a rookie first-rounder (Maurkice Pouncey), two third-rounders (Starks and Essex), a sixth-rounder (Chris Kemoeatu) and a 35-year-old, 13-year veteran (Adams) who is playing out of position.
Throw in considerable playing time from two undrafted free agents (Legursky and Foster) and a former fourth-rounder (Jonathan Scott) and the loss of arguably their best overall linemen in the preseason
(Colon) with an Achilles’ injury, and Kugler doesn’t quite mimic what last year’s New York Jets had with four first-picks along the line.
“It is the camaraderie of the group what makes them good, it’s a good group of guys,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “They have taken a beating for the past couple of years and a lot of it is undo. It is still out there and I think they are trying to prove themselves.”
The Steelers hired the rough-and-tough Kugler in January to replace Zierlein, and he quickly got the respect of his linemen.
“He kind of has the same personality as us, we are all kind of (expletive) in our own way,” Colon said. “But he is real loyal to us, and it is a good feeling to know you have a coach who will go to war for you.”
Kugler played four years at UTEP and one season in the World League of American Football for the Sacramento Surge that experience is important to some of the linemen.
“You definitely gravitate to coaches who actually played the position and played the game,” said Scott, who played for Kugler in Buffalo last season. “It’s only natural. He knows some of the discrepancies of the offensive line. It is definitely advantageous to be able to coach and play. He puts a lot of pride in offensive line play.”
Kugler’s style is different than Zierlein’s, and that didn’t go unnoticed by the line from the beginning. And it wasn’t something that wasn’t welcomed.
“What I admire the most is that he has a blueprint of where we should be and how we should play,” Colon said. “A lot of coaches don’t have that. It is one thing to tell guys but another thing to show them. It is easier for guys to adjust.”
Despite playing with a hodge-podge and banged-up offensive line, the Steelers line has fared a tad better than last year, through seven games:
Rushing yards : 821
Rushing attempts : 206
Yards per carry : 4.0
RB rushing TDs : 6
Sacks allowed : 15
Rushing yards : 749
Rushing attempts : 185
Yards per carry : 4.0
RB rushing TDs : 4
Sacks allowed : 20