In the Trenches: Steelers Vs. Bills

The Pittsburgh Steelers rushing attack has been a big part of their three-game winning streak. Le’Veon Bell has been accumulating the rushing yards, but it’s the Steelers offensive line that has done the dirty work at the point of attack. Here’s an in-depth break down of the offensive line’s upcoming challenge against the Buffalo Bills’ defensive front.

The Steelers’ offensive line has improved throughout the year due to their continuity. While left guard Ramon Foster missed one game and right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed three earlier in the season, the line has been lucky to be healthy for the playoff push (knock on wood). The days of watching the offensive line get no push at the line of scrimmage have ended. The games where Ben Roethlisberger absorbs hit after hit while attempting to make something happen out of plays that were eviscerated by the opposing teams’ pass rush are long gone and it isn’t a coincidence. The Steelers front office has a lot of cash invested in the five starting linemen for services rendered this season and it’s money that is turning out to be well-spent as the unit leads the charge into a possible playoff run. Possibly the offensive line’s biggest test the rest of the season, besides the Baltimore Ravens’ top ranked run defense, will come Sunday in Buffalo. Here’s an in-depth look at the matchup:

When the Steelers line up in 11 personnel and the Bills line-up in nickel this coming Sunday the match up will be strength on strength. The Buffalo Bills are stout up the middle with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams (questionable) anchoring their line as their two defensive tackles. They will be clashing with the Steelers’ interior offensive linemen; Foster, center Maurkice Pouncey, and right guard David DeCastro. Per Pro Football Focus, the players on both teams grade surprisingly close, making for a matchup that is worth keeping an eye on. Pro Football Focus grades both Dareus and Williams at 83. While the Steelers interior linemen grade at 81, 85 and 86. Pouncey being on the low end and DeCastro grading out on top. To move the ball between the tackles the Steelers’ offensive line must be proficient at getting to the second level. Blocking Bills’ linebacker Zach Brown must stay a priority for the Steelers if the line is going to have a productive day at the office. Brown is having a standout year and is solid against the run.

In 11 personnel, the Steelers line maintains a slight advantage on the edge against the Bills. Marcus Gilbert, who has been playing at a pro bowl caliber for the last two seasons, will match up extensively against outside linebacker Jerry Hughes. This might be a matchup the Steelers choose to exploit in the run game as Pro Football Focus ranks Gilbert’s run blocking at 77. Hughes in contrast has a run stopping metric of 39.7. Part of the reason Hughes grades so poorly is because he shifts to defensive end when the Bills are in this nickel look.

At left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, must block the rotating tandem of Lorenzo Alexander and rookie Shaq Lawson, who started the season injured and has been worked into the rotation, mostly as a pass rusher. PFF grades Alexander at 77 in run defense and Lawson at 72 in his limited action this season. Perhaps the most alarming number in breaking down PFF’s analysis is Villanueva’s 49.6 run blocking metric which is by far the worst number on the Steelers offensive line. But when the Steelers shift out of 11 personnel and into a base personnel look, forcing the Bills’ defense to do the same, the metrics swing decidedly in the Steelers favor.

It will be an interesting matchup when the Steelers come out in 12 personnel against the Bills’ base defense. When running up the middle in 12 personnel the tight ends usually try to keep edge defenders from crashing down and “closing” the hole that Bell is supposed to be rushing through. The Steelers also love to run their trey counter out of 12 personnel, but on paper they will be at a decided disadvantage as none of their tight ends grade well as run blockers. The Bills have solid outside linebackers that are good at setting the edge. If the Steelers can effectively execute a few trey counters and open lanes on the edge for Bell the running game’s effectiveness will increase drastically.

Another formation to keep in mind is 21 personnel with backup tackle Chris Hubbard substituting at tight end and fullback Roosevelt Nix taking the field. Both players have very good run blocking metrics; Hubbard grades at 72.1 (ironically higher than Villanueva) and Nix is rated at a stout 81.2. If the Steelers struggle to get a push at the line of scrimmage implementing Hubbard and/or Nix may be the answer. If weather mitigates the Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown connection, and the game this Sunday turns into a ball control/field position battle centered on rushing don’t be surprised if the Steelers use Hubbard and Nix in run heavy formations like 31 and 22 to keep the ground game going.

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