Maurkice Pouncey is one of the few NFL offensive linemen with the quickness to pull around the formation from the center position. He is a driving force behind the Pittsburgh Steelers' renewed efforts to run the football this season using zone-blocking concepts suited for athletic linemen. He is one of four starting offensive linemen the Steelers have drafted in the first two rounds since 2010, and the best one among them.
Now he's gone for the season.
Pittsburgh's plans to support quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with improved protection and a respectable ground game took a brutal hit during the opener Sunday when Pouncey suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Steelers -- 16-9 losers at home to the Tennessee Titans after gaining 32 yards rushing -- have no suitable replacement, and the results showed early. Starting halfback Isaac Redman carried eight times for nine yards; LaRod Stephens-Howling had 19 yards before leaving with a knee injury of his own. Roethlisberger took five sacks. Just that fast, the Steelers became less equipped to balance their offense, even with tight end Heath Miller and halfback Le'Veon Bell returning soon. After Sunday's sputtering debut, has their season short-circuited already or can they contend despite the lack of an effective ground game?
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, plenty of teams have won without the run.
The Steelers themselves secured a 12-4 record and a Lombardi Trophy in 2008 while ranking 23rd in rushing yards, 28th in expected points added through rushing and 29th in yards per carry. Their current offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, finished that 2008 season in the Super Bowl with Arizona. His Cardinals ranked last in rushing yards and featured a second-year undrafted free agent at center. They lost to the Steelers in a Super Bowl featuring 37 combined rushes for 91 yards. Clearly contention is possible.
Eleven teams since 1990 have fit a loose profile that could apply to these Steelers, at least until further notice: strong on defense (top 10 in points allowed) and especially weak in the running game (bottom five in rushing yards). Those 11 teams went 106-70 overall, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Seven of them earned trips to the playoffs. But the three playoff teams fitting the profile most recently -- the 2009 Indianapolis Colts, 2010 New Orleans Saints and 2012 Atlanta Falcons -- were dome teams featuring wide-open passing games, established wide receivers and quarterbacks with quick triggers. That's where the comparison loses some juice.
These Steelers play 15 games outdoors in 2013. Their most dangerous receiver, Mike Wallace, left in free agency. Their quarterback, Roethlisberger, is a magnet for sacks. He held the ball 3.85 seconds before the pass last season, third longest in the league on average. Holding the ball to create opportunities separates Roethlisberger, for better and sometimes worse. On Sunday, it was worse.
One game doesn't doom a season, but this game had ominous implications. The Steelers, who also lost starting inside linebacker Larry Foote for the season, are now 7-7 in Roethlisberger's past 14 starts even though the quarterback has put up respectable totals in those games: 27 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and a 60.5 Total QBR score. The 25.5 QBR score for Roethlisberger versus Tennessee was his 19th worst in 102 starts since 2006, the earliest season for which QBR data is available. The Steelers are 3-16 in those games. Roethlisberger will be better than he was Sunday, but it will take more. One question before losing Pouncey was whether the Steelers had enough around their QB to make it matter in the end. Now, you've got to wonder even more.
QB contract watch
Jay Cutler's performance in the Chicago Bears' 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals gave him the (very, very) early lead over Josh Freeman among veteran quarterbacks without contracts for the 2014 season. His 85.7 QBR score against the Bengals, built in part upon the value he added as a runner in the fourth quarter, was Cutler's fourth highest since joining the Bears in 2009. His performance represented a significant initial step against a formidable defense.
When the Bears' new leadership took a wait-and-see approach toward a new contract for Cutler, a salary-cap manager for another team surprisingly predicted Cutler would eventually command $20 million a year -- whether the quarterback deserved it or not. The thinking was that the Bears or some other team would feel lukewarm on the quarterbacks available in the draft and would see Cutler as the missing piece to winning a championship. It would take only one team to feel that way, the thinking went.