For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the decision by the Steelers’ coaching staff to move 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler to guard and to allow young players Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner to compete for the vacated tackle spot. This week I look at the film on Banner and evaluate his chances of winning the competition.
Every team in the NFL has guys who are more likable than others. In Pittsburgh, Zach Banner stands out in that regard. From his affable personality that has won over his teammates to his stance on social justice and civil rights that has earned him praise beyond the gridiron, Banner is not hard to warm up to.
This is especially true when you consider that, while with Cleveland in 2017, Banner weighed 420 pounds. You read that right: 420 pounds. Forget how that impacts you as a football player. Imagine how it impacts you in life. The simple act of tying your shoes at that weight. Getting into a vehicle. Buying pants. Zach Banner was not on track to live a healthy life no matter how his football career turned out. He needed to lose the weight to survive as a human being.
And so he did. 80 pounds in all, from 420 to 340. The focus and discipline it took to do so is inspiring. It’s impossible not to root for a player with that sort of resolve.
And yet, this is the NFL. Heartwarming stories are nice, but at the end of the day there’s a job to be done. That job demands physical excellence. The question which must be asked is this: At 6’8” and 340 lbs, is Zach Banner physically fit enough to be a full-time NFL offensive lineman? Does he have the proper conditioning and stamina? Can he move well enough to be effective?
To answer these questions, I’ve looked closely at the Steelers’ 23-17 victory last season at Arizona, a game in which Banner played a season-high 25 snaps as the sixth offensive lineman in the Steelers “Jumbo” package.
Jumbo became a staple of the Steelers offense midway through the 2019 season. Banner had played just 51 snaps in the first six games combined, but in game seven, against Miami, he played extensively as the Steelers rolled up a season-high 158 yards rushing. Banner played more consistently thereafter and established his season-high for snaps against Arizona.
Against Miami, the Steelers ran the ball on 23 of the 24 snaps in which Banner was on the field. They mixed things up better at Arizona. Of Banner’s 25 snaps, 19 were runs and six were passes. That’s still a run rate of 76%, which is high, but nowhere near the 96% rate from the Miami game.
The success rate was lower too. The Steelers tallied 50 yards on their 19 runs from Jumbo, with 16 coming on a reverse to Diontae Johnson. The other 18 runs accounted for just 34 yards. The six passes were underwhelming as well. They included a sack, a quarterback scramble, two incompletions, a pass interference call, and a two-yard touchdown pass.
The numbers are not a direct reflection of Banner’s performance as defenses had largely caught up to the Jumbo package by this time. But they do indicate some of Banner’s limitations. Let’s examine more closely.
Banner was best on gap blocks, meaning those where he had to block down on a player lined up inside of him. On these blocks, he had good angles on defenders and could move vertically to cover them up. Once engaged, there was no getting off of the big man. If Banner was able to lock on, he swallowed defenders up.
Here’s one example. This is a pin-and-pull concept where Banner and tight end Nick Vannett block down while Matt Feiler pulls to kick the edge and Maurkice Pouncey leads the back through the hole. The front-side blocking looks like this:
Banner takes a flat first step to prevent penetration (this is important, as teams are naturally tempted to try to shoot gaps on him with smaller, quicker defensive linemen). He then punches on his second step and is strong with his play-side arm while moving his feet well. This prevents the defender from crossing his face and gives the back, Benny Snell, a nice seam to hit.
Here’s another. This is a 3rd and 1 play. The Steelers attack the bubble in the defensive front between the 3-tech defensive tackle and the 9-tech edge player. Banner’s gap is open, allowing him to climb to the linebacker, while Snell must beat the unblocked safety to gain the necessary yard.
This is no contest. Banner has a clear path to a backer who must meet him in the hole. Once Banner makes contact, the backer essentially disappears. Snell runs in behind him to move the chains.
Here’s one more. This is a tougher block on an outside zone play, where Banner must reach the far shoulder of the edge player aligned on Vannett. Vannett will assist by chipping the edge before climbing to block the alley player. Still, Banner must be able to move his feet.
Banner executes this fairly well. Vannett gets enough of the edge to allow Banner to take over, and although Banner is unable to pin the edge so Snell can turn the corner, he runs his feet and maintains contact long enough to make this a positive play.
Something similar occurs on Johnson’s reverse. The misdirection gives Banner (bottom left) time to lock on the edge. Once he does he is too big and strong for the defender to disengage. If Banner can get his hands on a defender at the point of attack, good things will happen for the Steelers.
Things get messier when Banner is forced to fire off the ball quickly or operate in space. His lack of burst and clunky footwork can be a liability. For him to win the starting tackle spot, the Steelers’ will have to feel confident they can run their entire offense with him on the field, not just gap runs or those where he has help.
We see an example of this below on an outside zone run to the left where Banner has to reach the defender inside of him (circled below) and cut him off.
As you see in the GIF, Banner is slow out of his stance and cannot get square quickly enough to turn the 5-tech. Compare Banner’s reach block to that of the two guards. David DeCastro and Ramon Foster both step flat, gain outside leverage and shield their defenders from the ball. Banner can’t get his second step (right foot) in the ground fast enough to do the same. He is off-balance as a result, gets turned and cannot execute the block.
Here’s another. This is an RPO off of a zone run. The backside backer is left for the quarterback to read while the line zone-blocks to the right. Banner’s job is to turn out the edge defender and keep him from pursuing the run:
This is a pretty simple block that involves a backside technique called slam-hinge. Banner should step hard (slam) to his inside gap in case the edge defender tries to pinch across his face. If the edge remains on an outside track, Banner should open back on him (hinge) and run him up the field. The main thing he cannot let happen here is for the edge to beat him across his face, where he can take away the cut for the back.
Watch what happens:
The footwork and technique here are all wrong. Rather than slam-hinge, Banner lunges at the edge. This puts him off-balance with too much weight forward, and the defender easily wins inside. The edge doesn’t effect the play but that’s not the point. These mistakes may not seem egregious but they underscore an important flaw in Banner’s game. Too often we see him struggling with his footwork and with operating in space. As a full-time tackle, defenses will exploit this, forcing the Steelers to compromise something in their scheme to compensate.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to draw upon in terms of Banner as a pass protector. There is as much film of him running routes as a receiver in the Arizona game as there is of him pass blocking. Want to see a 340 pound man run a crossing route? Here you go:
How about a delayed bench route?
Amusing as this is, Banner is not vying to be a gimmick. To win the starting tackle job, he’s going to have to demonstrate he can protect Ben Roethlisberger. Can he? The body of work is so limited that it’s hard to say for sure.
Banner did fine on the three snaps on which he was tasked with pass protection against the Cardinals. This is his best rep, against pass-rushing ace Chandler Jones (55). Banner has a tough block here because Jones is aligned outside the tight end, providing him an extra gap to operate. Banner needs to kick hard out of his stance, get depth and use his length to keep Jones from turning the corner on him:
Banner does all of these things. He could do a better job of staying square to prevent a club and rip move across his face, but for a single rep this is encouraging. Banner drops with urgency, makes good contact and moves his feet to ride Jones past the quarterback. If Banner can execute in pass protection against Jones, who finished 2019 with 19 sacks, he can do so against anyone.
The question is, can he do it consistently over the course of a sixty-minute game? Banner got one rep in protection against Jones and he passed the test. What happens when he has to take thirty such reps? When Jones has a week to study film on him and set up counter moves? What happens in the 4th quarter when the Steelers need to pass to take the lead and Banner is tired? These are the unknowns that make the prospect of starting Banner feel risky.
Will Banner win the starting tackle job?
Honestly, I hope so. I love the idea of a big, aggressive tackle lined up next to DeCastro. Geoffrey Benedict mentioned last week that a DeCastro/Banner duo could resemble the Alan Faneca/Marvel Smith pairing that was so effective in the early 2000s. There’s no question the Steelers would be more physical up front with Banner in the lineup.
On the other hand, they cannot start a tackle who is a one-trick pony. Banner will need to work hard on his footwork and his conditioning to become a more complete player. He will have to perfect his technique against smaller, quicker defenders who want to beat him with speed and against bigger, stronger linemen who play low in the trenches. He will have to earn Ben Roethlisberger’s trust, too, so that Big Ben feels confident in Banner’s ability to keep him clean.
If Banner can do these things, he is my preferred candidate to win the tackle job. It will take determination and hard work to do so. For a guy who once dropped 80 pounds, I wouldn’t count him out.