By Matthew Marczi
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard Ramon Foster entered the 2013 season as perhaps the biggest question mark along the offensive line—not in terms of durability or consistency of play, but in terms of the having the athleticism necessary for the Steelers to play the type of offense they would like to play under offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Certainly, Foster is the odd man out with respect to pedigree along the offensive line, despite being the elder statesman. Flanked by two former second-round draft picks at the tackle position and two first-round selections on the inside, Foster—an undrafted free agent in 2009—does not have the draft status of his peers, but he has been more than holding his own.
The issue facing him this offseason was whether he had the athleticism to run the outside zone blocking scheme under new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. While reports from camp in that regard had been positive, the first true test came against the New York Giants in the preseason opener.
Possibly due to the fact that running back Le’Veon Bell was not dressed for the game, the Steelers did not run many zone plays to the outside. For the majority of his snaps, Foster stayed in, playing straight ahead and blocking the man in front of him.
Foster is already a known commodity when he has the opportunity to play in a confined space. He is a reliable and consistent performer who commits few mental errors, but can be subject to losing isolation battles. Giants defensive tackle Mike Patterson was able to give him trouble by outmuscling him a few times, for example, particularly when being beaten to the edge on inside blocks.
What is less certain about Foster’s repertoire, as already mentioned, is his ability to play out in space and on the move. He is not the most nimble or athletic lineman in the league—in fact, he’s most certainly the least athletic among the Steelers’ starting line. Pulling has been an area of concern for him over the years, though he showed some improvement a season ago.
Although it is not overtly visible, Foster is said to have lost some weight this offseason in order to prepare for increased play on the move this season, and although he did not spend an excessive amount of time on the move against the Giants, he did seem to be more comfortable.
Foster was asked to pull twice on running play during his 33 snaps in the first half, and on both times he was able to successfully drive his assignment out of the play: first on defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka on the first drive, and then on defensive end Adrian Tracy on the third drive that helped spring Jonathan Dwyer for an 11-yard gain.
The line did spend some time on the move a few times on running plays during the course of the game, although other than noting that he seemed comfortable in his assignment, there is not much to say about his performance. Still, he did well as a run blocker throughout the night, including on the third and one play converted by LaRod Stephens-Howling in which he was asked to block a linebacker coming in from the second level.
Working the screen game was an emphasis throughout the night, an area that admittedly could use some further refining. A few of the screen plays were foiled by missed reads or incomplete passes. Still, in one instance, Foster had only a shaky handle on a screen block that forced Dwyer to redirect, resulting in a poor play.
On the other hand, there were two instances in which Foster was clearly ahead of the play, and it could have gone for a big gain if not for failures elsewhere. On the first drive, Ben Roethlisberger had his pass batted down at the line by the linebacker on a play that would have had open space. Foster pushed Kiwanuka aside at the line and was down the field looking for people to block as the pass hit the ground.
Later, on the carry by Dwyer on which he failed to cut inside on a shaky David Paulson block, the entire left side of the offensive line was clearing the path for a big gain. Foster was already heading on into the secondary when Dwyer was tackled for a loss.
There are other examples to point out, of course, but with the Steelers taking on the Washington Redskins tonight in a game in which we should see more movement along the line, the details are not important. The observation to take away from the first preseason game is that Foster appears to be getting used to life on the run, looking more comfortable while pulling, and with more work out in space, he should only continue to improve.