Steelers Film Room: Geno Atkins shows how 'atypically' built defensive linemen like Aaron Donald are changing the game

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of changes when it come to evaluating NFL personnel over the years. These changes were not initiated by the NFL; instead, they NFL has oftentimes been dragged along. Aaron Donald is not a typical 3-4 defensive end, but nothing about how Aaron Donald plays is typical.

After the Steelers lost to the San Diego Chargers in 2012, I went on a long rant about how the vast majority of NFL decision-makers are not tolerant of risk. I asserted that this is the result of so many coaches being fired every year. Coaches are not in the business of looking for reasons to get fired; many people come up with enough reasons of their own. This rationale leads to inertia.

This inertia is oftentimes what leads many to a focus on measurables, both in terms of players and scheme. Coaches rely upon physical attributes when evaluating talent because, they believe, it minimizes risk. And, to a certain extent, they are correct. However, what happens when a player's tape shows that they are very much capable of playing the game? Russell Wilson is a perfect example. He was a very successful collegiate quarterback, but he lacked ideal height. The lack of height caused him to slip in the draft.

A running back like Darren Sproles is another example. Sproles would probably not be in the NFL 20 years ago. Small running backs were a minority. However, teams now embrace his skill set and what he can do for them. Moreover, teams now look for smaller, quicker running backs that can exploit linebackers in space. They want from being the exception to now being the rule.

When watching Wilson or Sproles, it is obvious that they are able to compensate for not being 6-foot-5 inches tall or 225 pounds. However, they both had to prove that they could play better than people that fit into what is considered a prototype for their position. A coach has never gotten fired for not drafting a short QB or a small running back.

If you really want to watch an innovative offensive or defensive scheme, watch the MAC conference. There, you will see some really innovative stuff. The Pistol Offense was not created in the NFL. Neither was the 3-3 defense. The one back offense got its start with Dennis Erickson in college. The zone read got its start with Skip Holtz when he was the OC at South Carolina.

One of my favorite things this time of year is when analysts use the term "system quarterback" as a pejorative. If a particular offensive system can score a bunch of points and with a QB that doesn't have a cannon for an arm, wouldn't it make sense to take a look at that offensive system?

Let's try to connect this line of thinking to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are currently thin on the defensive line. Aaron Donald is a tremendous defensive linemen. The thinking goes, however, that he is not a Steeler defensive linemen because 3-4 defensive ends need to have length. I say, watch this clip of Geno Atkins and come back and tell me about length.

I don't care whether you play in a 4-3 or a 3-4, that is how you play run. More importantly, that is how the Steelers want to play the run with their defensive ends. We've spilled a lot of ink at BTSC over the past few years talking about playing a 2 gap technique versus one gap technique and what it is exactly the Steelers play. We can argue about specifics, but here is the bottom line: Steelers defensive ends play through the man and attempt to re-establish a new line of scrimmage. Whether they have a one gap responsibility or two gaps is moot. With this clip, Geno Atkins is not attempting to rush the quarterback and playing the run while on his way to the QB. He is not playing a "penetrating" 3 technique. Those guys cannot play for the Steelers. However, Geno Atkins can play a 5 technique for the Steelers. He can play whatever he wants.

This is a great clip because it shows Atkins moving. The Steelers move a lot. But here, even with this example, you see that Atkins goes through his man to establish a new line of scrimmage. Then, he plays the run.

If Aaron Donald is the next Geno Atkins, then tell me again why Donald is not a Steeler defensive end? Keep in mind, I am not saying that all defensive ends that are short can play in a 3-4. Most do require some length in order to play with leverage. However, when you can explode with the power that both Atkins and Donald display, you can keep the offensive lineman off of you. James Harrison was a great example of this. He consistently defeated taller offensive tackles because of his power. He took his disadvantage, and he turned it into an advantage.

It took a long time before the NFL realized that athletes don't fit into neat categories. I sometimes feel bad for Kordell Stewart. Imagine if he was coming out for the draft this year.

It took a long time for the NFL to figure out what do with athletic quarterbacks because the NFL is always going to try to rely upon a formula they think is successful. Until a large enough sample has been acquired, the NFL will continue to work within certain restraints. I, for one, would like to see the Steelers break out of that mold and look at what someone like Aaron Donald can do for this team.

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