Center versus Nose Tackle battles are timeless. When I came to the Steelers, back in 1980, the storied confrontations of Mike Webster going at it with the Houston Oilers Curly Culp were already legend.
Continuing in the heralded line of great Steelers centers (Webster, Dermontti Dawson, both Hall of Famers), and mercurial trench battles, Maurkice Pouncey comes to the forefront this week to take on Buffalo Bills Nose Tackle Star Lotulelei, in this week's meat-eater matchup.
Pouncey is "ground-zero" in leading a resurging running attack. Directing traffic, barking out line calls, he is the nerve center of the offense.
Without question the leader of the pack, Pouncey stands 6-foot-4, weighs in at 304 pounds, and has started every game he's played in for the Steelers here, in his tenth year.
Strength, three-step quickness, and athleticism abounding, Pouncey has seven Pro Bowls, and two All-Pro teams to his credit. And yes, the big man can run when he gets it cranked up in the open field.
When Pouncey gets out on the hunt, he's athletic enough to get down the field and mulch the second level Linebackers, or the back end secondary personnel unlucky enough to take him on.
When it comes to pass protection, Pouncey's excellent foot quickness and agility serve him well. His ability to snap and punch, move and maintain under and up leverage, while having the samurai sixth-sense to sniff out blitzes and twist stunts are other attributes he brings to the dance.
Star Lotulelei is 6-foot-2, 315 pounds of ground and pound redwood tree. And like a redwood tree, he is extremely durable, having started 75 consecutive games, the longest streak among defensive tackles. He will plant himself right on the moustache of Pouncey in an offset nose-tackle position, and won't be hard to find.
Occasionally you will find him bumped out to a three-technique, but for the most part he's parked on the center.
Tree-trunk legs, and heavy duty "ligamentation" course through this man like blood vessels. He's powerful, plays with a low enough pad level, and is extremely hard to move.
When Lotulelei comes off the ball, he does a nice job of keeping his feet under him, locking into a four-wheel drive power base from the start, and getting movement. He ALWAYS gets movement.
Often the referee's whistle comes with the offensive lineman Lotulelei locked up with, having moved backwards at the snap, finding himself on the ground at the finish.
He's not afraid of a little "Head-Banger's Ball" action, and will use a coconut powered head-butting "forklift" technique to obtain and control his opponent.
Lotulelei works for, and more often than not, gets the inside hand lockout position on his opponent. He also does a good job of maintaining a two-dimensional run-stopping position on outside zone runs.
In other words, he doesn't turn his shoulders, running to the sidelines, and make himself one-dimensional (able to control one-gap only).
His lateral gap abilities are limited distance wise, but what territory he covers, he tends to dominate.
Pass rushing, Lotulelei-style, is a combination of a "mauling-brawling sumo striker." It's not pretty, it sure ain't fancy. You can bet it'll rattle your gourd and make you bite down hard on your mouth-guard.
But when he locks up with Pouncey, it will be all about the first three-steps and quickness after the snap. Whoever wins that, wins the moment.
The rock band, Lynard Skynard has a song called "Gimme Three Steps." And three steps is what Webster used to say was all he needed.
Snap the ball, step and simultaneously get to the inside hand position on your opponent's shoulder pads. If you control the inside hand fighting, you win the battle of leveraging your power.
As I said before, Pouncey is three-step quick. Battles in the "phone booth" will be quick, powerful and decisive, like a sumo contest. Pouncey can match Lotulelei's strength, but has an edge in quickness.
Lotulelei is quick to read screens, and decipher other plays, but is not the quickest to respond. Life in the trenches comes at a cost, and after a few years, speed is one of the first attributes to go.
Back in the day, we used to take turns in the off-season and don a Judo "Gi" or jacket. Then we would practice the art of rag-dolling, or push-pull to throw a man to the ground.
It's a way of twisting your opponent's core, and slamming him when you got him off-balanced. Lotulelei has a nice push-pull technique, and he will definitely try to work some rag-dolling on Pouncey.
Where Pouncey really shines though, is his competitive desire, his ferocity in the moment, and the fact that he brings an intensity bordering on the maniacal to every snap, every series. And I say that in an attitude of admiration.
I don't think it's any stretch to say Pouncey will someday join the lineup of Hall-of-Fame Steelers Centers in Canton, Ohio.