Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fernando Velasco: At the center of it all

The offensive line needs
all the help it can get.
Fernando Velasco may well be the most popular Steeler since Zoltan Mesko.


Fernando Velasco, the Steelers' new starting center, that's who. 

By all accounts, the Tennessee Titans released Velasco, who was their starting center for all 16 games last year, not because of performance but because of the salary he was schedule to make this year. His release occurred just two weeks ago today.

By releasing him, Tennessee was able to sign a decent free agent center (Rob Porter) who would be “good enough” at a salary low enough to free up cap room. Velasco wasn't making that much money, but Tennessee needed all the cap room it could get to sign key free agents like guard Andy Veltre, tight end Delanie Walker and safeties Bernard Pollard and George Wilson, all of whom are considered keys to their rebuilding (as we saw last Sunday vs. the Steelers).

Dermontti Dawson, Hall of Famer
A different type of center
Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls take with a grain of salt the Pro Football Focus player rankings, but there is something to them -- they do have some merit.  Pro Football Focus rated Fernando Velasco the 11th-best center in 2012 and Pouncey No. 25. That’s a big difference and, while it may not be entirely accurate, it suggests the anticipated drop-off from Pouncey to Velasco may not be so bad. Actually, that ranking suggests Velasco is the better center, but we in Steeler Nation don't believe that could be possible, do we? Eh? Do we?

The fact that Velasco is going to start just six days after being signed points to just how dire the situation might be if he weren’t here. And, in fact, he may be pretty good.

What becomes of the zone-blocking scheme?
The big question will be the effect on the new zone-blocking scheme. Steel City Blitz makes an interesting point that Velasco is more of a stay-at-home center than the mobile type usually associated with the zone-blocking scheme.

The Steelers counted on Pouncey to move laterally, but apparently Velasco is a conventional type whose strength is controlling up-the-middle bull rushers like Baltimore's Haloti Ngata. And that’s not a bad thing, not at all, if he's any good at it.

Mike Webster,
Hall of Famer
If Velasco is a less-mobile center than the Steelers were planning to have (i.e., Pouncey), presumably he is not going to be able to move as much laterally on pulls and swing passes, etc.  Does that mean the new zone-blocking scheme will not work as planned?  Will Todd Haley and Jack Bicknell have to scale back or mix up their schemes?

One thing for sure: The running backs just have to perform better (and that includes their blocking). Right now, believe it or not, Felix Jones may be the best fit for the zone-blocking scheme, and that makes you wonder why the Steelers implemented a scheme that may not be suited to the skills of at least half their RB personnel (Isaac Redman and [help us] Jonathan Dwyer). We shall see.

A stabilizing force -- just what they need?
For all that, Fernando Velasco may be just what the doctor ordered, especially considering the types of  nose tackles and defensive fronts that have given the Steelers trouble the past few years, including Haloti Ngata and Cincinnati's relentless Geno Atkins and Domata Peko,  the tandem we will see on Monday night and who are no vacation, by any measure.

Ray Mansfield (left), The Ol' Ranger
No doubt, the Steelers got a bad break losing Pouncey, although the quality of his play over the past two seasons remains up for debate. They got lucky, however, when Velasco was still available.

Right now, following the loss of Pouncey, he appears to be just what they need at the center position. Unfortunately, they still need a lot more help along the offensive line, especially at both tackle positions. Over at Steelers Depot Jeremy Hritz discusses the woes of the offensive line in this piece, and fellow writer Matthew Marczi offers his take here.

Velasco alone won't solve the Steeler’s offensive line problems, but he should stabilize the middle of the pocket and protect Ben.

Good pickup. Fernando Velasco just might become the linchpin of the Pittsburgh offensive line. That statement was inconceivable just one week ago, considering most Steeler fans had never heard of the guy.

Yet here we are.

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