In light of head coach Mike Tomlin’s announcement that last year’s starting right tackle, Matt Feiler, has been moved to guard to begin the 2020 season, I’m doing a three-part series on the ramifications of that decision.
Last week, I examined Feiler’s run blocking in his sole start at guard in 2019, a 17-12 win in Week 10 versus the Los Angeles Rams. This week, I’m studying his pass blocking from the same game. Next week, I’ll look at the contest for the vacated right tackle position between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner.
Let’s begin with a “film breakdown-as-music” analogy. If evaluating quarterbacks is like singing along to the radio while driving to the beach with your friends, breaking down offensive line play is like listening to Leonard Cohen at a black-light party. One has great appeal to the masses, does not require maximum concentration and can be easily digested. The other is simply confusing.
For many, reading a breakdown like this can be off-putting. Ugh. Offensive line play. That feels like work. We love sports as an escape from the other difficult things in our lives. The last thing we want is for sports, and our love of the Steelers in particular, to feel difficult.
Then again, there is no greater way of understanding football than by examining how things work up front. All of football emerges from the trenches. From the flying wedge of the Great War era to the RPOs of today, figuring out how to scheme the big guys up front so the little guys behind them have room to operate is the true essence of the sport.
What does this mean for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020? It means the primary objective for the men who do the scheming is to keep the franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, upright and healthy. Roethlisberger is the helium in the Steelers’ balloon. They need to protect him to stay aloft.
Moving Feiler to guard has repercussions for that objective. Feiler’s performance in pass protection against the Rams last season was solid but it did reveal issues which must be fixed if the Steelers are to keep Roethlisberger out of harm’s way. Here are the highs and lows of that performance.
As we saw in last week’s breakdown, Feiler did a good job communicating with his fellow linemen on switches and combo blocks. The photo below shows a diagram of a “Fan” protection scheme, whereby all the linemen push away from a certain gap or defender. Here, it’s the A-gap to the left of center Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey, David DeCastro and Okorafor will fan to their right while Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva will block left. The open A-gap will be taken by running back Trey Edmunds:
This is well-executed by everyone up front as they maintain their gap integrity despite an attempt by the Rams to create confusion with a delayed twist stunt. The Rams send Aaron Donald (99) on a wide charge into the B-gap, hoping to draw a double team from Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva. Safety Taylor Rapp (24) works into the A-gap, occupying Edmunds. The twist is from the linebacker (56), who comes from out of the screen and attempts to slip in behind Donald. Feiler sees the stunt, pulls off of the double and picks him up. This allows quarterback Mason Rudolph to slide left and throw from a clean pocket.
Here’s another. It’s the same basic idea from the Rams but from a different look. Now, the backer (56) is in the frame while the safety is removed. Linebacker Cory Littleton (58) is assigned to the back and does not rush:
Once again, the Rams try to draw Feiler into a double team and open a window inside of him. Once again, he doesn’t bite. The Steelers communicate the twist well and give Rudolph a clean pocket from which to throw.
Here’s one more. On this play, Donald, who is stacked on Villanueva at the snap, comes hard inside before exchanging gaps with the edge rusher in another attempt to get the Steelers to block two-on-one while leaving someone free. Feiler does a nice job winning the battle of the hands with Donald by getting inside and punching him in the chest. This slows Donald’s charge just enough to help Villanueva take him over while Feiler redirects to pick up the twist.
L.A. tried a host of these twist stunts in an attempt to confuse Feiler but he executed properly on every one.
Feiler had some good moments when asked to block one-on-one as well. So much of pass blocking is about proper technique — taking a good kick-step, bending well, staying square, keeping the hands inside, not lunging. It’s about balance and leverage as much as anything. This is an area where Feiler is solid.
Here he is in solo protection against Donald. Donald, circled in the photo below, lines up as a five-technique on Villanueva’s shoulder but pinches hard into the B-gap to draw the matchup against Feiler:
The pinch gives Donald a good angle to use his quickness to keep Feiler from getting square on him. If Donald can get to Feiler’s left shoulder before Feiler contacts him, it’s game over. He is so explosive that he will simply power through. Feiler needs to establish a solid base and shoot his hands inside to keep Donald from winning leverage.
Feiler doesn’t do this perfectly but he gets enough of Donald to keep him from controlling the block. Feiler is square and has his hands on Donald’s chest. Donald is trying to club with his right arm and rip through but there’s not enough room to do it.
This results in a win for Feiler, who is able to run Donald into the clutter of bodies and give Rudolph a seam to step into and complete his throw:
A few plays later, Donald tries to switch up by crossing Feiler’s face. But Feiler stays on balance and does a great job thwarting the attempt by being strong with his inside arm. Donald, relentless as he is, works back outside but Feiler’s hands and feet stay active, allowing him to maintain contact and run Donald out of the play.
As we can see, communication and technique were among the strengths of Feiler’s outing in pass protection against the Rams. He was adept enough in these areas to suggest he can handle interior protection duties.
Feiler was far from perfect, however, and will need plenty of pre-season reps if he’s going to remain at guard.
First, as can be expected, he did struggle at times in his matchup against Donald. Donald is like T.J. Watt in that he has an answer for just about any strategy an offense presents him. Counting sacks, the Steelers threw the ball 41 times against the Rams. That gave Donald plenty of opportunities to find a way through.
Here’s one such example. On this pass rush, Feiler leans out just enough for Donald to exploit him. An offensive lineman wants to be balanced and erect in protection (“chest up, chin up” is a common coaching point). If his weight is too far forward he’s susceptible to a pull-and-rip move from a defender. If he’s back on his heels, a good bull rush will put him on his butt. In this instance, Feiler reaches for Donald rather than shooting his hands and punching. Donald takes advantage by clubbing Feiler’s hands away and ripping inside of him. Pouncey comes off of the 1-tech to help but by this point Donald is in a downhill charge and cannot be stopped. He plows through Pouncey and knocks Rudolph to the turf just as he’s releasing the football.
Feiler struggled at times with straight bull rushes, too. Here’s one from Rams defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day (69) where Day wins the leverage battle by getting his hands under and inside of Feiler’s pads. Once leverage is established, it’s not difficult for a bull-rusher to push a blocker deep into the pocket. Day does just this, driving Feiler back and affecting Rudolph’s ability to step into his throw.
Then there’s this disaster. The Rams line up in an overload with six potential rushers to their right side of the football and just one (barely pictured) to their left. The stunt they run is indicated in the diagram below:
Despite the obscure pre-snap look, the stunt is pretty simple. The Rams bring five rushers, one to each gap except the B-gap between DeCastro and Okorafor. The pre-snap look should necessitate a four-man slide to the overload, with every lineman stepping to the gap to his left except for Okorafor, who should block the edge player. The slide should look like this:
Watch what the Steelers do instead:
Pouncey and DeCastro wind up blocking the same player while Feiler blocks the A-gap to his right and Villanueva turns out. This opens up the B-gap for Donald, who comes pouring through and hammers Rudolph. Rudolph, to his credit, stands firm in the pocket and makes a great throw to Jaylen Samuels before getting popped. Insult is added to injury when Samuels drops the throw.
I’m not sure who takes the blame for this mess. Quarterbacks often have the freedom to change protection at the line if they see a front that could cause problems for the existing call. Was Rudolph given this freedom? I’m not sure, but I doubt it. This means the protection call would be on Pouncey, who is often responsible for identifying defensive structures. Pouncey may not have noticed the overload, however. Or perhaps he did and Feiler screwed up. It’s hard to know who was wrong.
Whatever the case, a team cannot turn Aaron Donald free on the quarterback. These types of mistakes get quarterbacks injured and coaches fired. They simply can’t happen.
All things considered, Feiler fared well in pass protection against the Rams. He gave up some pressure but no sacks and handled stunts like a veteran. The Rams tried to pick on him but to no avail. For a first outing at the position, there was a lot to applaud.
That said, Feiler is nowhere near a finished product. He will have to play lower to move defensive tackles in the run game and resist bull rushes in protection. He has a lot to work on as a puller, too. Frankly, I believe Feiler is better at tackle and that the line would benefit, eventually, from returning him there. Can he play guard? I believe he can. Will the line be best with Feiler at guard at Okorafor or Banner at tackle? I have my doubts.
The tackle competition is the subject of next week’s article as we conclude our look at the reshuffling of the Steelers’ offensive line.