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Making a case For T.J. Hockenson and a return of power football for the Steelers

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No one really wants the Steelers to take a tight end in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but there is a case to be made it is a logical move.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As a football fan, I have great appreciation for the various styles of play employed throughout the game today. I love the innovation of the spread offense and how it forces defenses to play sideline-to-sideline. I love the multiplicity of the RPO game and how it can make a defense wrong no matter what they do. I love the frantic pace of the up-tempo no-huddle.

I love great defense, too. The 4-2-5 and its use of versatile safeties. The schematic cat-and-mouse game of the zone blitz. The 3-4 with its emphasis on great linebacker play.

My favorite thing to watch in all of football, however, is a great power run game. Give me some big uglies up front, a fullback with a neck like a tree trunk and a ball-carrier who will slam it between the tackles and I’m a happy man. Nothing is more satisfying than watching a team block down, kick out and run the ball with malice.

The beauty of this style of play is in its simplicity. There is no greater way to break a team’s will than by running it down their throat. As a defensive coach, this induces a sense of impotence. When an offense is trying to out-scheme you, you feel as though you have the power to react. You have options. If you can’t find something to counter an opponent who is spreading you out and throwing, or running a ton of formations to get matchup advantages, or who is shifting and motioning to create leverage, that’s on you. But when you’re getting beat because another team is simply bigger, stronger and more physical, there’s not much you can do. Loading the box with defenders and throwing bodies at the problem will only get you so far until the offense pulls some tricky play-action or misdirection. For those who want a reminder of what this looks like, re-watch the Steelers 2018 playoff game against Jacksonville. If ever there was a lesson on how a great power run game is one of the surest ways to control an opponent, that was it.

I bring this up because I am increasingly of the belief that if Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson is available when we draft at 1/20, or even if we have to spend some draft capital to go up and get him, he should be our man. Given our needs on the defensive side of the ball, I understand taking Hockenson may not be the popular move. An ILB like Devin Bush or one of the highly-rated corners would be the safe, sensible pick. But I believe the key to reclaiming our status as an elite team lies in our ability to run the football. And I believe no player potentially available to us in the upcoming draft can help us in this area like Hockenson.

THE 2018 STEELER OFFENSE

To make this argument, let’s look back at our 2018 offense. The Steelers finished fourth in the league in yards per game last season, averaging just over 403. They tied for sixth in points per game at 26.8. Those rankings suggest an offense that was among the league’s best in terms of production. What they don’t measure, however, is the effectiveness of the offense as it correlated to wins and losses. To get a better gauge on that, let’s look at a different set of numbers.

In 2018, the league average for rushes per game was 25. In games in which the Steelers met or exceeded that average, their record was 6-0-1. In games they did not, they were 3-6. The league average for pass attempts per game was 35. In games in which the Steelers met or exceeded that average, they went 5-6-1. In games where they threw less than 35 times, they were 4-0.

Obviously, the Steelers fared better when they attempted to run the football. Yet they averaged just 21.6 rushes per game, good for 31st among the 32 NFL teams, while leading the league with 43.1 pass attempts per game. The Steelers have become increasingly pass-heavy in recent seasons, averaging 36.4 passes per game in 2016 and 38.1 in 2017. In each of those seasons, however, they ran the ball on average about 26 times per game while winning 11 and 13 games, respectively. In 2018, they increased their passes per game by five while decreasing their run average by the same. Perhaps not coincidentally, their win total dipped to 9. What gives, then? Why, despite a high success rate when they committed to the run, were the Steelers so pass heavy in 2018?

A host of culprits are likely to blame. Le’Veon Bell’s holdout left the Steelers without an established running back and forced them to rely on the unproven duo of James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Conner started fast but wore down midway through the season and eventually missed three games with injury. Samuels had never been a feature back at any level and was thrust into the role in Conner’s absence. He did well but was an inexperienced inside runner, thus limiting the overall run package.

Naturally, then, the Steelers leaned more heavily on the pass. And why not? They had a veteran offensive line, a star quarterback and two of the best receivers in the game in Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster. Leaning on the pass, however, is one thing. Depending on it is quite another. Roethlisberger wound up leading the league in passing yards but the imbalance between the run and the pass was detrimental overall. Without a commitment to the run, the offense put up big numbers but saw their turnover rate increase. Their .149 turnovers per drive was the fifth worst percentage in the league and their time of possession per drive dropped from second in the league in 2017 to 15th in 2018. The turnover rate and decreased time of possession, each a factor of an over-reliance on the passing game, put pressure on the defense to defend short fields and be on the field longer.

Take the week 11 defeat in Denver that precipitated a three-game losing streak. The Steelers threw the ball 58 times to just 16 runs. Their opening drive lasted 10 plays, all of which were passes. In the second half, they had seven and six play drives where they threw on every down. None of those produced points. Roethlisberger was wickedly good, completing 42 throws for 452 yards but the offense scored a pedestrian 17 points. The game effectively ended with Roethlisberger throwing an interception from the Denver two yard line with less than a minute to play.

Some of this falls on offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, whose job it is to call the plays. When legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once said, “Three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad,” he wasn’t necessarily wrong. The modern passing game is far more advanced than anything that existed in Woody’s day and the changes in the rules at every level have invited teams to throw like never before. Still, it’s hard to sustain success throwing it nearly 70% of the time. Fichtner may have a Hall of Fame quarterback in his ear urging him to keep airing it out but he will have to find greater balance to be more efficient in 2019.

Losing Brown will force him to rethink the offense. As he does, he should spend considerable time figuring out how to get the once-vaunted Steelers run game back on track. Having Conner and Samuels return with a year of experience under their belts will certainly help. So too would adding Hockenson.

WHAT TYPE OF PLAYER IS HOCKENSON?

In short, he’s a beast. Watch:

Tell me you didn’t watch that like ten times in a row. I mean, the dude is physical. He is a significant upgrade as a blocker over Jesse James who, though he should be applauded for improving from his time at Penn State through his time in Pittsburgh, was serviceable at best. With Hockenson we would go from serviceable to excellent. Hockenson gets on people, drives his legs and finishes blocks. Where James never seemed to relish the contact or embrace the nastiness required of a great blocker, Hockenson revels in it. He has a lineman’s mentality, which means he approaches every play with a burning desire to impose his will upon people. Just ask the poor kid from Indiana above.

Desire and physicality might separate Hockenson from a mediocre blocker like James, but his technique work separates him from even better blocking tight ends like Vance McDonald. McDonald is pretty physical in his own right but he often leads with his helmet, loses his ability to keep his weight under him and falls off of blocks as a result. Hockenson is a bit more measured coming off of the ball. He doesn’t fire out in a blind rage trying to maul people. He makes contact on his second step, finds the strike zone on his target and locks on. Then he mauls people.

You could make a clinic video of his technique on the inside zone play shown below. His first step is perfect. It is a short set-up step that allows him to cock his hands so he can shoot them from a power position. On his second step, he strikes while rolling his hips into the defender. The defender tries to work around Hockenson but Hockenson redirects, using small, choppy steps to keep his base underneath him and stay locked on. From here, he uses simple strength and desire to drive the defender out of the play. Any edge player who wants to run around a block is going to get wiped out against Hockenson.

Here’s one more:

Not much to see, right? The play only gains about a yard and Hockenson actually looks a little out of position. Think again. What Hockenson does here is ridiculously good. Let’s look closer.

The play is outside zone, whereby all of the linemen reach the outside shoulder of their playside defender. It is a zone scheme so blockers are working in tandem to block areas. Hockeson (at right end) is working with the right tackle (#74) to block the C and D gap, which will likely mean the near DE and the playside linebacker (#7).

The way this should work is that Hockenson will reach the DE and hold him up just long enough for the OT to take him over, at which point Hockenson will climb to the LB (#7), who should be flowing over the top to the football. Hockenson does his job. He reaches the DE, holds him up and begins to climb once the OT arrives. But the backer, rather than flowing, tries to run through the C-gap to the football. The OT sees him a bit late and comes off the DE to block him. This leaves Hockenson in no-man’s land since he has begun to disengage. He must quickly re-direct, turn his hips and drive his feet fast enough to prevent the DE from crossing his face to the football.

Few players would be both quick and powerful enough to do this without holding. Notice how Hockenson’s left arm is cocked in a flipper position and how he uses it to drive the hip of the DE. It is so hard for Hockenson, realizing he has lost leverage, to keep himself from wrapping that arm around the DE’s waist and drawing a penalty. Of all the clips I watched where Hockenson was mauling people, this one impressed me the most. The OT hangs him out to dry with his late read yet Hockenson is skilled enough to recover. The play fails because there are not enough blockers to account for the Penn State safety, who comes unblocked to the ball, not because the DE blows it up. It shows how much Hockenson understands blocking, how well he has been coached (kudos to the Iowa staff) and just how advanced his skills are.

For all of Hockenson’s skills as a blocker, it is equally exciting to watch him catch the football. Hockenson didn’t win the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end just because he’s a good blocker. He caught 49 balls for an impressive 15.5 yards per catch in 2018. The ypc average suggests that Hockenson is not simply a lumbering tight end you can dump the ball to in the flat. He can both stretch the field and run after the catch. The latter is evident in the GIF below.

First, notice the situation. It’s 3rd and 3 and Iowa is in an old-school I formation, where the tendency is to run the football. They will run a play-action concept and throw to Hockenson on an out cut, where he is wide open.

Hockenson is open because the defense has committed to the run. As successful as the Steelers passing game is, they have never been a great play-action team under Roethlisberger. The last time they were even a good play-action team was with Heath Miller (anyone remember the ‘05 Super Bowl run and how the Steelers play-actioned the Colts and Broncos to death in the playoffs?). The combination of a power back like Jerome Bettis with a tight end who could both block and catch like Miller put tremendous pressure on defenses to defend the run without over-committing to it. A defense had to serve two masters against that duo, which often resulted in them doing neither particularly well. With Conner and Hockenson, the Steelers would have their best play-action potential since the days of Heath and the Bus.

The other thing we see in this GIF is Hockenson’s speed. Once he catches the football and gets a nice chip block from his receiver, he is gone. Hockenson ran 4.70 in the 40 at the Combine which, at 250 pounds, is a solid time. He plays faster than that, though. There is speed in shorts and speed in pads. Hockenson features the latter.

For further evidence of his athleticism, there’s this:

Want to see him stretch the field?

So to recap - Hockenson is an elite blocker, a versatile pass-catcher and a situational headache for defenses. He already wears black and gold so it’s easy to envision him in Pittsburgh. Speaking of...

HOW DOES HOCKENSON HELP THE STEELERS?

Ask any defensive coordinator which personnel groups they hate to see and the phrase “12” is bound to come up. 12 is a two tight end, two receiver, single back group that provides the offense a wealth of options so long as their tight ends are versatile. With Hockenson and McDonald, we would have two of the most versatile tight ends in the NFL. Both can play with their hand in the ground or split out wide. Both can block, catch and stretch the field. Both are great runners with the ball in their hands. Most importantly, 12 personnel sets with McDonald and Hockenson on the field together would put tremendous stress on defenses to play the run and the pass simultaneously.

Consider the formation below. This is an “Ace Over” set. Ace is a traditional 12 personnel set with a tight end and a receiver to each side of the formation. Here, Iowa has aligned both tight ends to the left, creating an unbalanced seven man blocking surface (that’s Noah Fant, another likely first round pick at TE, aligned as a wing next to Hockenson).

Look at the dilemma this creates for the defense. Because there are receivers split wide to either side, Wisconsin has to decide whether to roll a safety into the box to defend the extra run gap created by the formation or leave the safety in the sky to defend the pass. Here they leave the safeties high, resulting in a numbers advantage in the box for Iowa. There are four Iowa players to block three Wisconsin defenders on the left side of the ball. If Wisconsin rolls a safety down to defend the open gap, they are forced to play single coverage on the outside against the receivers. In Pittsburgh, this would mean going 1/1 versus Juju and the speedy Donte Moncrief, or having a linebacker or safety match McDonald and Hockenson. 12 personnel with Hockenson would force defenses into uncomfortable situations against the Steelers.

In the bigger picture, Hockenson would give the Steelers their best run-blocking tight end since Heath Miller. Those Pittsburgh offenses were balanced, controlled the football and rarely turned it over. That sounds like a recipe for success given the current state of our defense. The Steelers are unlikely to become a run-first offense, nor should they be. But the addition of Hockenson would allow them to come back towards the league average of 25 runs and 35 passes per game, which is where they were in 2016-2017 when they won a combined 24 games.

As for the defense, it is tempting to argue for the addition of one of the stud inside backers or a top-level corner as a means of solidifying things. I won’t argue against that, and if we wind up with one of the Devins I will applaud the pick. For me, though, we can help fix the defense by transforming the offense. Consider the numbers again: 6-0-1 when we ran the ball 25 times or more in 2018. 3-6 when we did not. A backer or corner who will likely split time with one of the veterans at their position won’t remedy this. T.J. Hockenson will.

lSO THE BIG QUESTION IS... CAN WE GET HIM?

I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of mock drafts that have him going to Green Bay with the 12th pick. Cincinnati picks at 11, and they aren’t doing a deal with us, so to get in front of the Packers we’d likely have to trade with Denver and go up to 10. DropTheHammer did a great piece last week where he suggested Detroit might be a willing trade partner at 8. Would that do it? Would the price be too high? I don’t know. My suspicion is if the Steelers go up that high it would be to target Devin White, not Hockenson.

If I’m Kevin Colbert, though, I’m doing everything I can to get the tight end. If going up to 8 means I have to forfeit our second 3rd round pick at 83 and a later pick as well, so be it (I’d even entertain the Raiders pick at 66, although that would be a last resort). The signings of Mark Barron and Steven Nelson reduced the absolute necessity of filling our needs at backer and corner with a first round pick. We can still go BPA there in the 2nd and 3rd rounds and, provided we don’t swing and miss, come away with a darn good football player. It comes down to a simple question, then - which player gives us the best chance to win games in 2019? For me, that’s Hockenson. He will allow us to bring back some power football on offense, which has been a winning recipe in Pittsburgh for as long as I’ve been alive.

No matter what happens, it promises to be an exciting week ahead. Enjoy the draft, everyone. And as always, GO STEELERS!