February 06, 2011
That Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey(notes) will miss Super Bowl XLV with a high ankle sprain has been one of the week's more reported stories, and Pouncey's absence has put backup Doug Legursky(notes) squarely in the spotlight. How, it is wondered, will Legursky block big B.J. Raji(notes), the Green Bay Packers' 6-foot-2, 337-pound scud missile, who's proven to be amazingly fast for his size in any direction? Truth is, Raji isn't going to be Legursky's main problem - he's more an issue for the Steelers' guards and ancillary blockers.
As J.J. Cooper of AOL Fanhouse recently pointed out, the Packers are just as multiple in their defensive fronts as the Steelers are. And all the hype about Legursky's ability or inability to deal with Raji is overblown as a result. Cooper counted the snaps in which Raji lined up directly over center in the NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears, and the big nose tackle did so on just 11 of 61 plays. And according to Cooper, Bears center Olin Kreutz(notes) had to block Raji on just seven plays.
So, that's the good news for Legursky. The bad news, and the situation that may make Raji a preferable option for the center, is the fact that Legursky will be dealing with linebacker Clay Matthews(notes) on an inordinate number of plays. Unusually for a guy who lines up on the edge most of the time, Matthews gets most of his quarterback hurries and takedowns on the inside through spin moves and end-tackle stunts. According to STATS, Inc, Matthews gathered eight of his 13.5 regular-season sacks up the middle with defensive coordinator Dom Capers' specific position-changing blitz concepts.
And moving forward from those numbers, I found Matthews' two sacks against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional playoffs to be especially revealing when it comes to his ability to come at the quarterback in ways that are not expected. Each sack happened with Matthews lined up on the left edge but each sack was the result of Matthews moving through the A-gap, blowing through the linemen, and shooting through the inside gap. The first sack was a bit more impressive because of the ridiculous spin move Matthews used on the play.
With 7:13 left in the first quarter, the Packers lined up in a nickel defense in which their front was constricted to a four-man - this is a common concept among both defenses. When going to nickel, both the Packers and Steelers are more likely to drop a lineman from the field than to take a linebacker out. Raji was lined up in a one-tech (between the center and the left guard) as opposed to right over center, and Matthews was in a left end position, but with his hands off the ground.
Pre-snap, the Packers engaged in a lot of movement, and that's another factor with which Legursky will have to contend - the line calls and protection changes that are the result of those defensive adjustments. Cornerback Charles Woodson(notes) (21) shot over from the right side of the field to blitz outside of Matthews (52), placing safety Charlie Peprah(notes) (26) in short coverage. At the same time, safety Nick Collins(notes) came down from the single-high safety look (the original coverage was Cover-3) to blitz from the defensive right side. With two defensive backs blitzing, the Falcons were going to have to make some adjustments.
The Falcons did, but it didn't matter, and Matthews was the reason. Halfback Jason Snelling(notes) set out to block Collins, which left Woodson as a free blitzer, because both Atlanta tight ends took off on routes at the snap. And this is where Matthews' effectiveness really comes into play, and why he's so good at stunting inside. The Atlanta offensive line had to fan out to deal with the outside pressure, and it was then Matthews' job to find the first gap he saw inside. The Falcons tried to overwhelm the left side of the Green Bay defense with a trips look out of motion, but Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was playing checkers while Capers was playing chess.
As all this was going on, Matthews made a completely sick spin move inside, pinwheeling off of right tackle Tyson Clabo(notes) (77), and blazing past right guard Harvey Dahl(notes) as Dahl was dealing with the hand-fighting of end Cullen Jenkins(notes). As center Todd McClure(notes) shaded to his left to watch Raji (who, as we have intimated before, wasn't over center - he went outside the left B-gap at the snap), Matthews had his opening, and he took it. No halfback, no problem for Matthews, who had an easy sack with that inside loop.
The Steelers have an equal ability to move their chess pieces around on defense, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have thrown everything at Legursky in practice in preparation for this big day. The key thing to remember is that the man in the middle probably won't be Legursky's biggest threat.
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