This is the final installment in a series I’ve been writing for the past month about the re-shuffling of the Steelers’ offensive line. Today’s piece looks at Chukwuma Okorafor and his bid to best Zach Banner in the competition for the starting right tackle spot.
Like Banner, who dropped eighty pounds a few years ago to get to a manageable playing weight, Okorafor has overcome obstacles to reach this place in his career. He was born in Nigeria and emigrated to the United States when he was 12, never having seen an American football game. Soccer was the national sport in Nigeria, so when Okorafor first tried football while in high school he became a punter. He grew so large, however, that his coaches talked him into playing on the line. From there he earned a scholarship to Western Michigan and was taken by the Steelers in the third round of the 2018 draft. Not exactly the typical path to an NFL roster.
Okorafor played in thirteen games as a rookie, starting two. Last season, however, with the line relatively healthy and Banner the preferred situational tackle, Okorafor saw action just once. He started the Week 10 game at home against the Los Angeles Rams when right tackle Matt Feiler was moved to guard to replace an injured Ramon Foster. Okorafor played every snap in the Steelers’ 17-12 win that day. They were the only snaps he played all season.
My job here is to determine where Okorafor stands in his battle with Banner for the tackle spot vacated by the relocation of Feiler to guard. To do so, I’m forgoing the traditional game-breakdown of Okorafor where I look at his strengths and weaknesses against a particular opponent (for those who are interested in that approach, Flip Fisher did a nice one here on Okorafor’s start against Denver in 2018). Rather, I’m looking at the broader scheme the Steelers employ and examining how Okorafor fits.
First, some remarks about Okorafor’s game in general. As a run-blocker, he struggles to move physical defenders off of the football. It may be unfair to summarize his capabilities by showing him against Aaron Donald, but watching Okorafor (right tackle, #76) get blown up by Donald (99) on this down-block and then flagged for holding him encapsulates the problems he can encounter against powerful defensive linemen:
Here he is again struggling to move a 3-tech on a down block. Okorafor plays with poor leverage and gets driven into the seam in which the back is attempting to cut. Creating movement at the point of attack is often problematic for the young tackle.
This isn’t to say Okorafor is a poor run blocker. He moves his feet well enough to be effective covering players up, especially when he is on the back side of a play or matched up on a linebacker (see below). He finishes his blocks aggressively and he gives great effort.
He is not, however, a slammer who will wash down defensive tackles on power runs or drive 4-3 ends off the ball. Anyone expecting him to be the second coming of Marvel Smith will be disappointed.
Where Okorafor shines is in pass protection. This GIF, which shows Okorafor kick smoothly out of his stance at right tackle and maintain inside leverage against the Ram’s Clay Matthews while simultaneously protecting against a speed rush to the edge, is a good example of his quick feet and sound technique.
And this one, where he covers the defender’s feet with his own and then redirects expertly to protect against a spin move, shows nice athleticism for a big man:
This one I like simply because he snaps the edge-rusher’s head back with a two-hand punch to the chest that would make Mike Tyson proud. This rep is unique for the violence Okorafor displays but typical for how he often stays on balance and shoots his hands with precision.
Okorafor’s skill set makes him the polar opposite of Banner, whose strength is clearly as a physical run-blocker but whose protection skills are a work in progress. It sets up an intriguing battle for the starting tackle spot, as the Steelers must choose between a brawler in Banner and more of a technician in Okorafor.
As I wrote last week, Banner’s physicality makes it tempting to root for him to win the starting job. A powerful road-grader to run behind is something this line has been missing for years. But, unless the coaching staff decides to overhaul the offense and emphasize the rushing attack (not likely, given the offseason investment in big receiving targets Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool), Okorafor is a better fit for what the Steelers do with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. I expect him to be the starter when the team opens the season in New York in September.
The Steelers’ Scheme Under Randy Fichtner/Ben Roethlisberger
The Steelers’ offensive scheme is thought to be, in large part, a partnership between coordinator Randy Fichtner and Roethlisberger. For those whose memory of what that partnership looked like has been clouded by the hodgepodge attack the team fashioned last season, here are some reminders:
In the 18 games Fichtner and Roethlisberger have been together as offensive coordinator and quarterback, the Steelers have thrown the football. A lot. Just over 67% of the time in 2018 and on 64 of the 85 snaps (75%) Roethlisberger played in 2019. Their passing percentage ratio was 2nd highest in the league in 2018 and would have led the league by far had they continued on their 2019 pace (Atlanta finished first at 66.9%).
The Steelers have gravitated more towards the quick passing game under the Fichtner/Roethlisberger pairing as well. In 2018, Roethlisberger finished 34th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks in air yards per completion, a statistic that measures the vertical yards on a pass attempt at the point the ball is caught beyond the line of scrimmage. Roethlisberger averaged just 4.8 CAY (completion air yards), down from 5.9 in 2017 and 6.4 in 2016 when Todd Haley was calling plays. This signified a concerted effort by Fichtner to protect Roethlisberger by getting the ball out of his hand quickly. Throws like the one below, a crossing route to Ryan Switzer with a CAY of -1 and a release time of under three seconds, were more the norm with Fichtner/Roethlisberger in charge.
Personnel-wise, the Steelers are overwhelmingly a single-back offense. In 2018, they ran 80% of their plays out of one-back sets. Because the one-back set lacks a traditional fullback, they are more of a zone and sweep team featuring athletic linemen who can pull and climb than a gap-blocking, power team with a fullback bulldozing the hole.
When the Steelers do run power concepts from 11 personnel, they often bring a receiver into the box as a substitute fullback, like we see with James Washington below. The risk of injury to a perimeter player is obvious, however, so the Steelers must pick their spots carefully.
Their reliance on one-back sets, then, makes them more of a horizontal run team that seeks to stretch and slash a defense than one that tries to knock them off the ball and run downhill.
Why do these schemes favor Okorafor over Banner?
In the two career games in which Okorafor started and played all of the offensive snaps — 2018 at Denver and 2019 versus the Rams — the Steelers threw the ball on 101 of 144 total plays. With Roethlisberger in Denver, they threw an astounding 60 times on 76 snaps (79%). Even with Mason Rudolph against the Rams, they aired it out 41 times.
Both of those contests were close games, so it wasn’t like the Steelers fell behind by a wide margin and had no choice but to throw the ball to come back. Rather, with Okorafor in the lineup, they preferred to throw.
Contrast those numbers to their use of Zach Banner last season. In the two games in which Banner played his highest snap totals (24 vs the Dolphins and 25 versus the Rams), the Steelers ran the ball on 42 of those 49 plays. That’s an 86% run rate. So, with Okorafor in the lineup the Steelers have overwhelmingly chosen to throw the ball while with Banner they’ve overwhelmingly chosen to run.
In a perfect world, you’d like to see better balance with their use of each player. The heavy pass ratio suggests Okorafor is a solid protector who struggles in the run game while the heavy run ratio suggests the opposite of Banner. Combining the two, although interesting as a scientific experiment, is not an option. The Steelers will have to pick their poison. Will they favor Okorafor’s protection skills and hope he develops as a run blocker or Banner’s run blocking and hope he can keep defenders off of Roethlisberger?
When framed like that, the choice seems obvious. Given the hits Roethlisberger has absorbed throughout his career, keeping the now 38 year-old, surgically-repaired quarterback upright will likely be a major point of emphasis for 2020. And, with their reliance on 11 personnel and a run game heavy on horizontal stretches, a tackle who can move his feet is a must. Under these objectives, Okorafor is the favorite.
This assumes, of course, the Steelers approach 2020 with the same offensive mind-set they had when Roethlisberger was last on the field. It’s possible we will see a change in philosophy. The additions of Ebron and Claypool may signify a renewed interest in the vertical passing game. The signing of fullback Derek Watt could mean more 21 personnel. And the wildcard that is Matt Canada might put a fresh coat of paint on the entire operation. It’s hard to say with certainty in which direction the offense may go.
I’m taking the safe bet. With no OTA’s and limited preparation time, I believe they will fall back on the familiar. They may tweak the existing scheme, but I expect them to retain its core. They will return to a pass-heavy offense under Roethlisberger with the goal of using quick throws to set up deeper shots and a zone and sweep-based run game that will play to the strengths of their linemen. And I believe, under these conditions, Chukwuma Okorafor will get the nod at right tackle.
So, when the Steelers take the field at the Meadowlands on opening night, expect a lineup of Villanueva, Feiler, Pouncey, DeCastro and Okorafor up front. Whether that is the best starting offensive line is debatable, but I do believe it is the most likely. I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.