Kovacevic: Lay it on Steelers' line ... fairly
It's not easy to erase the smile from Ramon Foster's face. He's always easygoing, outgoing, the kind who could brighten a funeral without being the least bit obnoxious.
The man's a riot, too.
On Saturday afternoon when his beloved Tennessee Volunteers were benefiting from five Western Kentucky turnovers in a horrific six-play span, Foster mercilessly took to Twitter to taunt: “Treat them as such!”
Well, Ramon wasn't treating anyone to his humor Wednesday at the Steelers' first practice since the season-opening stinker against the Titans, and that just might have painted the most painfully powerful picture of how he and his offensive linemates performed.
In case you forgot …
“Put it this way,” Foster was saying before taking the field. “We've got to be 10 times better than that.”
Yeah, at least: Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times, he was hurried nine other times, the running backs were buried for 28 yards on 14 carries, and I won't even mention David DeCastro missing a cut block so badly that he cut short Maurkice Pouncey's season.
Nothing demonstrates weakness in a football team like a lousy line, so nothing could have been more embarrassing.
Here's what Jurrell Casey, the Titans' big defensive tackle who twice dropped Roethlisberger, told the Tennessean afterward: “You could see it in Ben's eyes: He wanted to get back to that locker room pretty quick.”
This needs to change in a raging hurry, in time for kickoff Monday night in Cincinnati. But that might be too much to ask. The Bengals' front seven is among the NFL's finest, in large part because of all-universe tackle Geno Atkins. They'll also contend with an all-guns-blazing James Harrison bringing whatever he's got left for whatever reason he might concoct to feel contempt for his old employer.
So what to do?
Best place to start, naturally, is with an honest assessment of what went wrong against Tennessee:
• The center had never played center.
That was Kelvin Beachum, of course. He's the default starter for Cincinnati, per Mike Tomlin, but Fernando Velasco told me Wednesday he thinks he “should be ready.” Velasco started 13 games last season for the Titans in a similar scheme, and he actually graded higher than Pouncey in Pro Football Focus' 2012 ratings.
• Blame the backs.
According to a film study done by the Trib's Mark Kaboly, 3 1⁄2 of the five sacks were the fault of running backs, not the line. LaRod Stephens-Howling gave up two, Isaac Redman another, and Felix Jones and right tackle Marcus Gilbert were equally guilty on another. Left tackle Mike Adams gave up the fifth.
If Tomlin stops being so stubborn about dogging Jonathan Dwyer for not being in shape last spring, he'll get an instant upgrade in running back blocking: Dwyer was rated fourth-best in the NFL in that category last season by Pro Football Focus.
• All these faceless tight ends can't block.
Not at all. Heath Miller is so much more valuable than his reception count.
• It's not the zone.
Some in the fan base are complaining about the outside zone-blocking scheme installed by new line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. And that might well be justified at some point. But in this game, the zone scheme was run only once.
Small wonder Foster laughed a bit when asked if the Steelers might ditch it: “No chance. We've got a lot of work into this.”
• Zero adjustment.
The Titans didn't get all gimmicky, but they did blitz. And for whatever reason, the Steelers didn't make a clear counter.
“There was a flaw, and they exploited it,” Foster said. “Other teams will keep trying it, too, unless we get it fixed. And we will. Look, the good part is that everything that went wrong was something we can control. It isn't right to say we got plain ol' whupped.”
• They got plain ol' whupped.
Sorry, Ramon. It wasn't you or DeCastro on the interior, but Adams and Gilbert were terrible. They were tossed around like Beanie Babies.
That's got to change — more than anything — if the Steelers are going to have any semblance of an edge at the edges.
Maybe it's a simple matter of having the tackles, both of second-round pedigree, get more confident. Or the whole line, for that matter.
“We haven't lost confidence. We just had a bad game. One. Bad. Game,” Foster said. “We have to own that. It's out there for the world to see. But we're not down. I think we're going to be fine.”
If not, then, by all means, treat them as such.