The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers return one of the most experienced starting offensive lines in the NFL. Four of the five members of last year’s first unit, with a collective 392 starts in their careers, are back. The fifth will be tackle Matt Feiler, who performed well enough in his ten starts last season that the Steelers traded veteran Marcus Gilbert to Arizona to clear a path for Feiler. While there are a host of battles for starting jobs at other position groups this summer, the first-string offensive line is about as set as it can be.
What about the backups? The Steelers are expected to keep nine linemen, which means four reserve spots. B.J. Finney, a five-year vet with 43 games played under his belt, has proven to be a reliable flex player at center and guard and is a lock to make the team. Zach Banner, Derwin Gray, Fred Johnson and Jerald Hawkins will likely fight it out for two of the remaining three spots. They are an inexperienced bunch to say the least, with Banner’s eight NFL games played (0 starts) the most among them.
The other line spot will go to one of the most intriguing players on this year's roster. It may not seem like it, but Chukwuma “Chuks” Okorafor, the Steelers third round pick in the 2018 draft, has become an extremely important player in Pittsburgh. Okorafor is in line to be the primary backup behind Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva at tackle. He is by no means a veteran, but in the twelve games played and three starts he made as a rookie, Okorafor showed the potential to be a long-term NFL offensive lineman. Given the inexperience of the players behind him, the Steelers will need him to make good on that potential.
Okorafor should see plenty of action one way or another this season. He will likely participate in the jumbo packages offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner utilizes that put six offensive linemen on the field. With Feiler being versatile enough to play guard if necessary, the Steelers could slide Feiler inside and start Okorafor at tackle if either David DeCastro or Ramon Foster goes down. And, should Feiler stumble at some point, the 6’6-320 pound native of Nigeria could wind up the starting tackle outright. Given those stakes, it’s fair to say that Okorafor is the most important backup lineman on the roster.
The man everyone calls “Chuks” was in the starting lineup at right tackle for the Steelers pre-season game Saturday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. Let’s take a look at how he did.
Okorafor was joined on the line for the entire first half by Finney at center and regulars Feiler (right guard), Foster (left guard) and Villanueva (left tackle). With Mason Rudolph starting at quarterback, it seemed like a safe bet the Steelers would run the football a decent amount and work their short and intermediate passing game to get the ball out of Rudolph’s hand quickly.
This is exactly what they did.
After an uneventful three-and-out on the Steelers first series, Okorafor demonstrated good technique on Rudolph’s second throw of the game, an out cut to Vance McDonald. Locked in pass protection on Kansas City veteran defensive end Alex Okafor (Okafor vs Okorafor!), Chuks absorbed Okafor’s bull rush by setting with a low pad level and a wide base. One of the basic rules for linemen in pass protection is to cover a rusher’s feet with yours so your base is wide enough to hold your ground. Okorafor, as seen below, did this nicely, helping to provide Rudolph a comfortable pocket in which to throw.
Okafor is a solid pro, however, and it didn’t take long for him to diagnose how hard Chuks was setting for his bull rush. A few plays later, on a 3rd and 7, the Chiefs DE struck Chuks in the chest on what looked like another bull rush. Okorafor sunk his hips to anchor in again when Okafor deftly used a club-and-swat move to disengage and turn the corner on a speed rush. Chuks, to his credit, recovered quickly and rode Okafor wide but Rudolph held the ball a bit too long in the pocket, allowing the veteran pass rusher to come all the way around and drop him for the sack. It wasn’t a terrible job by Chuks but the combination of Okafor knowing to use his counter move and Rudolph not getting the ball out fast enough put an end to the drive.
After a Donte Moncrief fumble and a punt on their next two possessions, the Steelers embarked on an impressive 14 play, 89 yard drive that showcased Okorafor’s strengths and weaknesses.
He offered solid pass protection against athletic rusher Emmanuel Ogbah on a pair of throws to James Washington that earned first downs and moved the ball out near midfield. On both plays, Okorafor got his hands inside on Ogbah and was able to control his chest. Line play is so often a battle for vertical and horizontal leverage with the winner of that battle the player who controls the encounter. On both of these throws, that player was Chuks.
Then, on a 2nd and 11, the Steelers ran Benny Snell on an inside zone play to the right side of the line. Okorafor, blocking out of a two-point stance, was immediately too high off of the snap, allowing another Chiefs defensive end, this time Tanoh Kpassagnon, to get under his pads, play off of the block and fall back inside to tackle Snell:
You can see how high Okorafor is in the first frame and how it allows Kpassagnon to strike under his pads (vertical leverage) and play off of the block. This play was not an anomaly in that regard, as Okorafor struggled much of the night to get a good push at the line of scrimmage in the run game.
One reason for this might be the fact that he (and the rest of the offensive line) blocked out of a two-point stance all night. Personally, this is a decision I strongly dislike. I could go down the rabbit hole on this topic but for the sake of brevity I will not. The Steelers, like many pass-oriented teams, prefer the two-point stance because it gets their linemen into their kick step in pass protection quicker. A team can’t have their linemen use a two-point stance when they throw the ball and a three-point stance when they run, of course. That would be the fake mustache of play disguises. So for the sake of consistency they run everything from the two-point.
I believe linemen come off the ball both harder and lower out of a three-point stance. That thinking, in some circles, is so 1997. I’m not here to question coach Shawn Sarrett because he knows a heck of a lot more about line play than I do. One way or another, though, it’s Sarrett’s job to fix Okorafor’s pad level. if Chuks doesn’t play with better vertical leverage, he will struggle to get movement in the run game.
On the bright side, Chuks was much better when he could chip off and climb to the second level to block linebackers. Okorafor’s athleticism is evident. It’s easy to see why the Steelers were attracted to him. Watch him climb and wall off the Kansas City linebacker on this sweep play to James Conner:
Chuks jolts the defensive tackle before getting to the second level, staying square and controlling the backer. This demonstrates both explosiveness and athleticism. It is really nicely done on his part.
Following the run play where Kpassagnon shed Chuks to tackle Snell, the Steelers faced a 3rd and 11. Okorafor recovered nicely from the previous play by making a smart adjustment on a full-slide pass protection in what was, for me, his best play of the night.
A full slide is where all five linemen slide in one direction or the other while a back or tight end blocks the edge away from the slide. These are good against teams like the Steelers who twist and slant their defensive line a great deal because they essentially create a wall of blockers across the front. The weakness is having a running back matched up against an edge rusher. If you think your tailback can block TJ Watt (or more likely Bud Dupree, since the line would likely slide towards TJ), a full slide is the way to go.
Here, the Steelers slid left and had Snell protect the right edge outside Chuks. The Chiefs ran a “long stick” stunt whereby the defensive end crashed all the way down to the A-gap next to the center, hoping to pull the tackle down with him. They then blitzed the linebacker and the slot corner behind the long stick, figuring they would get two-on-one against the running back. Watch:
The circled players are the blitzers. The Steelers line, Okorafor in particular, is being pulled left by the long stick. Snell is moving to his right to pick up the corner. The backer, then, should come clean.
He doesn't. Why? Because Chuks doesn’t take the bait. He sees the defensive end disappear inside and, rather than be lured into the mess of bodies, redirects and picks up the blitzing linebacker. The result is a clean pocket and a 13 yard completion from Rudolph to Xavier Grimble for a 1st down to keep the drive alive.
A few plays later, Jaylen Samuels scored on a 14 yard touchdown run, staking the Steelers to a 7-0 lead en route to a 17-7 win.
It was an up and down evening for Okorafor but this play, more than anything I witnessed, made me optimistic about the young man. He needs to get physically stronger and play lower (vertical leverage!!!) to handle experienced defensive linemen. And, as a pass protector, he will have to study the repertoires of his opponents so he isn’t vulnerable to counter moves like the one Okafor got him with.
But he is athletic and he can climb and move in space, which is a gift at his size. And, perhaps most importantly, plays like the last one referenced, where he didn’t take the bait on the long stick, picked up the linebacker and extended a scoring drive, are championship plays. They are the hidden acts that often define seasons. For every obvious turning point in a football game, like Xavier Grimble’s goal-line fumble in Denver last season, there are less obvious plays like the one Chuks made here that impact games just as dramatically. Without it tonight, the Steelers are forced to punt and don’t get that opening touchdown. Mason Rudolph doesn’t get to finish a touchdown drive (and a long one at that - don’t think a 14 play, 89 yard drive didn’t do wonders for his confidence). It’s just a preseason game. But it’s a big play nonetheless.
That play gives me hope that this young man is on track with his growth. This is a good thing, since, given the shaky state of our backup offensive line, Okorafor’s may be the growth upon which the season hinges.