Steelers Offensive Line Remains Unsettled After Season Opener

Vicki FarriesCorrespondent ISeptember 12, 2009

G Trai Essex was beaten by DT Jason Jones. C Hartwig and T Colon stood side by side while Essex looked on as Roethlisberger was being pursued by the defense and sacked by Jones.

TE Heath Miller misses DT Tony Brown. He and T Max Starks looked confused over which man to block, so Starks touches no one: sack on Roethlisberger by Brown.

These are only two examples of what happened in the first half of the Steelers-Titans game last Thursday night.

Although the offensive line started to settle down in the second half, it was for the passing game not the run.

The run was stuffed, not just by the Titans defense, but also by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians himself.

Choice: let's pass.

In the passing game, Roethlisberger completed 33 out of 43 attempts for 363 passing yards, yielding one touchdown and two interceptions.

While the running game with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and Roethlisberger produced 23 attempts for 36 total yards and zero touchdowns.

60 percent of the offense used the pass, while the running game yielded 1.8 yards per carry.

There is nothing wrong with the passing game early in the season; the weather is still pretty good.

What happens in October and November when it rains, or December when it snows?

We all know what happens to a passing game in that kind of weather.

I realize that it’s the first game of the season, but the offensive line played poorly with the running game.

I realize there were some changes, Max Starks moved left, and Trai Essex is the place of Darnell Stapleton, but the offensive line played poorly.

I realize Roethlisberger scrambled out of the pocket quite a bit in the first half, but the offensive line played poorly.

This is the second year this line is playing together, and there is a total of 28 years of line experience in Essex, Starks, Hartwig, Colon, and Kemoeatu.

What seems to be the problem?

Deion Sanders, NFL Access (after the Steelers-Titans game):

“Taking a page from Jaime Dukes, our resident offensive genius, the (Steeler) offensive line does not have great feet. When defenses start to move them in the front, they can’t maneuver, they can’t dance like the big fellow said, with opposing defenders.

"Because at times, Big Ben has all day back there in the pocket to throw, then there are other times when he’s blitzing and they’re not picking up the blitz because of their footwork.”

Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Tunch Ilkin will tell you it's all in the hands and footwork….”

If footwork could be an issue, then we can ascertain there is an issue with fundamentals. If there is issue with fundamentals, the finger should point to the coach, and that would be offensive line coach Larry Zierlein.

When Mike Tomlin was hired to replace Bill Cowher as Head Coach, he retained some of Cowher’s coaches and had to replace those who left.

Tomlin needed a special teams coach to replace Kevin Spencer, who went to Arizona with Ken Whisenhunt. He hired Bob Ligashesky as coordinator, with Amos Jones as assistant.

Ligashesky and Jones collectively have proven their quality by building and developing a top notch special teams unit whose accomplishment in 2008 ranked 1st in kickoff coverage and 4th in punt coverage from 14th and 16th in 2007.

Defensive backs coach Ray Horton replaced former Steeler defensive back and coach Darren Perry. Horton, a former Cincinnati Bengal, coached by Dick Le Beau back in the '80s, is partially responsible for coaching the No. 1 defense in the passing game.

Tomlin hired Randy Fichter as receivers coach and Kirby Wilson as running backs coach (replacing legend Dick Hoak). Finally, he replaced Russ Grimm (who accepted the line coach job with Ken Whisenhunt) with Larry Zierlein.

The state of the offensive line is in the hands of Larry Zierlein.

Zierlein has been offensive line coach three years and yet the first game of the regular season, three years later, we see no improvement in the offensive line.

Is Jamie Dukes right? Is Tunch Ilkin right? Is it bad footwork? Is it technique?

Isn’t that the responsibility of the coach and his staff to teach fundamentals, technique? Isn’t that the purpose of training camp to learn fundamentals, technique?

What do we know about Zierlein, other than him sending offensive email just weeks after taking the coordinator job?

Zierlein is a journeyman coach, with 13 jobs at the high school, college and pro level since 1970. He even tried his hand as an arena football coach in the 1980s.

At the University of Cincinnati, Zierlein was the offensive line coordinator (1997-2000).

Cincinnati had gone 47 years without a bowl appearance.

Then in 1997 with an 8-4 record, the Bearcats played in the inaugural Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho.

That was followed by 2-9 and 3-8 record in ’98 and ‘99.

In his final year, things improved, as the Bearcat rushing attack helped pave the way for a 7-5 record and bowl berth.

Tomlin was added to the staff as the defensive backs coach in 1999-2000 (Here’s a connection).

The Bearcats made three straight bowl appearances in 2000, 2001 and 2002—the first two in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit and the third in the New Orleans Bowl without Zierlein.

Here is another interesting tidbit:

Zierlein’s first coaching job in the NFL was not until 2001 with Butch Davis and the Cleveland Browns.

In charge of the offensive line until 2004, Zierlein worked from 2001-2003 with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (another connection).

Here's how his offenses fared during that time:


Points Scored/Game

Rushing Yards/Game

Passing Yards/Game

Sacks Allowed


17.8 (25th)

84.4 (31st)

175.1 (28th)

51   (4th)


21.5 (19th)

100.9 (23rd)

213.3 (18th)

35 (19th)


15.9 (29th)

104.4 (20th)

177.1 (25th)

40 (13th)


17.25 (27th)

103.6 (23rd)

176.5 (25th)

41 (11th)

In 2006, as the Buffalo Bills assistant offensive line coach, the Bills finished 7-9, with the 23rd-ranked scoring offense.

The Bills’ line surrendered 47 sacks (T-7th most), and the passing game and rushing game were ranked 28th and 27th respectively, in terms of yards per game.

Because of the Steelers porous offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 97 times since Zierlein was hired.

The reality is, Larry Zierlein has never coached an offensive line that paved the way for a successful NFL offense.

It seems that not all of Zierlein's record is tarnished.

As a college coach, Zierlein was successful with the now defunct Southwestern Conference, coaching the offensive line at University of Houston from 1978-1986.

His teams won two conference titles in his first two years on campus, finishing 1978 ranked No. 10 and 1979 No. 5, and one more in 1984. 

Then Zierlein spent one year coaching the Washington Commandos, then, two fruitless seasons in New Orleans coaching the Tulane Green Wave, followed by a two-year stint in the World League of American Football.

It should be noted that the two years that he was coaching the NY/NJ Knights of the WLAF, were the first two of the league's existence.

At Tulane in 1995-1996, he and Head Coach Buddy Teevens were dismissed following the '96 season.

Tommy Bowden took over the Tulane job in 1997, and immediately turned the program around, winning seven games with many of Teeven's and Zierlein's players, followed by a 12-0 season in 1998.

Although I have painted a bleak picture of Larry Zierlein, I cannot place full blame on his shoulders.

Zierlein is not out in the trenches playing this game.

As I stated before, there is a combined 28 years of offensive line experience playing this season, so why it that the performance is so is emaciated?

The line is getting beaten. They seem confused about their assignments. They are not finishing blocks. They are allowing the defense to roam free at Roethlisberger.

It doesn’t help when Roethlisberger prefers to fan out of the pocket and hold onto the ball much too long to make a play.

That puts stress on the line to secure the pocket. The longer he holds, the more the linemen will be caught for holding penalties or getting beaten on blocks.

Did you notice the chaos that ensues when Roethlisberger scrambles?

It’s like little kids running around in circles chasing each other and not catching a darn thing.

Its one thing to get beaten, but it’s another thing when the linesmen are having mental mistakes and getting beaten.

We got a preview of this during the pre-season.

In the four pre-season games, the Steelers amassed 30 penalties for 234 yards which averages to 7.8 penalties per game.

7.8 penalties in a game during the regular season would equate to losses.

The line is self-inflicting, and the bleeding needs to stop.

When Zierlein became line coach in 2007, several of the linemen were quoted to say he was not the boss.

It seems that G Alan Faneca was looked to for coaching and direction by the younger players.

Max Starks said. "Larry (Zierlein) even looked to him (Faneca).

“It was one of those things where Coach Zierlein came in and he was more like a moderator and kind of an intermediary guy. Alan was the one that kind of guided everybody.”

But in terms of actual coaching as it relates to terminology and technique, Faneca, Starks said, was "kind of adamant about still doing things the way he'd been doing them.“

The younger linemen listened to Zierlein's lingo but used Faneca’s terminology and what was lost in the translations at times was clarity regarding who should be blocked and how.

Faneca was the leader of the offensive line and before he left, the Steelers were third in the league in rushing, and they gave up fewer sacks (47) than they did in 2006 (49)

Now, Faneca is gone, and it's Larry's offensive line now.

According to Starks, the line speaks a universal language, one of being “unified" and "simplified" in the approach up front.

Continuity and time is the key. Well that was a couple of years ago. What about now?

Where is the continuity? They have had a couple of years and a Super Bowl under their belt.

This should be a Super Bowl-caliber offensive line, not a newly-created one.

There was one good thing that I witnessed during the Steelers-Titans game: the line did pass-protect during the second half.

If the line can provide pass protection for a quarterback who prefers to run out of the pocket and hold onto the ball long enough to make a play, they should be sound blockers to create running lanes for the running backs.   

I must add that the line is not solely responsible to establishing the running game.

It is also important to have a tight end who can block and a fullback to lead.

That was sorely missed after TE Mark Bruener and FB Dan Kreider were released. They were not replaced.

The Steelers drafted TE David Johnson who seems to be more an H-Back, a tight end/fullback tweener.

CBS Sportsline reported Johnson has taken advantage of TE Sean McHugh's injury in the battle for the third tight end spot.

According to Tomlin, "David is taking advantage of his extra snaps, and he'll get more snaps this week." "To this point, he has represented himself well and really has our attention."

It had become especially important since McHugh is out for the season on injured-reserve with a knee injury.

Steelers also drafted RB Frank Summers, who could see playing time as a fullback.

And finally, the Steelers may be looking for depth at tight end, working out free-agent Bear Pascoe this past Friday. has confirmed this through a league source.

Pascoe was believed in league circles to be the best blocking tight end available for the 2009 draft.

The former Fresno State University Bulldog was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the sixth-round.


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