This move has major ramifications for the entire line. It means starters at two new positions instead of one. It forsakes continuity for familiarity. And it gambles that Chukwuma Okorafor or Zach Banner will be ready to start on opening night. It’s not an announcement to be taken lightly.
Last week, I looked at the state of the line as a whole, and for the next few weeks, I will focus specifically on the decision to move Feiler to guard. Today, I’ll examine his run blocking at the guard position. Then, his ability in pass protection. And finally, the competition at tackle between Okorafor and Banner. If you like offensive line play, these next few weeks are for you.
Matt Feiler is another example of the Steelers finding value in a player others passed up on, joining names like James Harrison, Willie Parker, and Alejandro Villanueva. Undrafted out of Bloomsburg State in 2014, he spent a year in Houston before the Steelers signed him off of waivers. He played sporadically his first few seasons in Pittsburgh but his position flexibility earned him a contract extension in 2018. That year, he made ten starts at tackle for the injured Marcus Gilbert. Gilbert was traded to the Cardinals the following offseason and Feiler assumed the starting job. He started all sixteen games in 2019 — fifteen at right tackle and one at left guard.
Thus, switching Feiler back to guard is not a total surprise. It’s not his primary position but he’s not new to it, either. Still, it’s a transition, and Feiler’s ability to handle it will have major implications for the offense.
How hard is it to move from tackle to guard?
It’s not easy. The 1 and 3 tech defensive linemen a guard typically encounters are slower but more powerful than the edge rushers and 4-3 defensive ends tackles must block. Guards must often be stronger in their legs and hips to push guys like Cam Heyward off the ball while tackles must have length and great technique to cover up players like T.J. Watt.
However, because guards are the primary pullers on sweep, power and counter plays, they must also be agile enough to block smaller, more athletic players in space. Guards must also work with centers on communicating combo blocks on zone schemes and on handling twists and line stunts in pass protection. A player who can do these things while also possessing the lateral quickness and sound technique of a tackle is extremely important to an offense.
It’s easy to understand, then, why the Steelers value Feiler. His versatility combined with durability (amazingly, he played 100% of the offensive snaps last season), has quietly allowed him to become the most important player on the offensive line not named Maurkice Pouncey or David DeCastro.
Feiler’s sole start at guard last season came in the 17-12 win over the Rams in Week 10. The switch itself was challenging. To make things more difficult, the player he often lined up against was Aaron Donald, the best all-around defensive lineman in the game.
How did Feiler handle his duties? In part one of this series, we examine his run blocking.
The Steelers didn’t run very effectively against the Rams. They had 27 rushes for a pedestrian 42 yards. You can forgive the poor results a bit when considering that James Conner and Benny Snell Jr., their top two backs, were both out with injury. The ball-carriers that day were Jaylen Samuels, Kerrith Whyte Jr., Tony Brooks-James and Trey Edmunds. Even tight end Vance McDonald took a handoff. It was the running back-by-committee approach which many have longed for. Unfortunately, the committee wasn’t very good.
Feiler, for his part, showed both promise and room for improvement as an interior run blocker. The schemes in which he fared best were zone runs. The zone scheme assigns linemen to an area rather than a specific defender. They block along a track, stepping to their play-side gap and working up from there. Often, if there is no defender in their gap, they will double team with an adjacent linemen until a defender shows. Thus, good communication among linemen is an important part of zone blocking.
Feiler and Pouncey worked well together on zone runs against the Rams. Here we see an inside zone play to the right. Feiler and Pouncey will work a combo block on the 1-tech to the playside backer (circled below). They want to push the double team to the second level and once the backer commits to a gap the lineman on the linebacker side will come off the double team to block him:
As we see in the GIF, the backer hesitates which, in turn, causes Feiler and Pouncey to stay on the double and move the 1-tech into the backer’s lap. This prevents him from moving laterally to pursue running back Trey Edmunds, who cuts the play backside. Had Edmunds stayed vertical instead of making a second cut to the edge, the play would have resulted in a nice gain. Instead, it picked up two yards (did I mention the running back committee against the Rams was not particularly good?).
Nearly the same scenario occurred on this next run. Feiler and Pouncey hammer the 1-tech on the double, impeding the backer’s ability to read and react:
Next we see a mid-zone run, which hits a gap wider than inside zone (quick zone primer: inside zone hits in the playside A to backside B gaps; mid-zone hits in the playside B-C gaps; and outside zone attacks the playside C gap to the edge).
The Feiler-Pouncey combo block is shown in the rectangle below:
Pouncey comes off faster here because of the width of the backer and the fact he is more aggressive filling his gap. Feiler takes over on the 1-tech and moves him both vertically and horizontally. His steps are excellent — short and choppy — and he gets his hands inside on the defender allowing him to control the block. This is another example of Feiler and Pouncey communicating and executing well together.
Here’s one more. This time it’s outside zone, the toughest of the zone blocks for interior linemen due to the fast outside run flow. This combo is made more difficult by the tight shade of the 1-tech. It’s a hard block for Feiler, who will need Pouncey to hold up the 1-tech long enough for Feiler to overtake him before chipping to the backer:
Feiler and Pouncey are excellent here. Pouncey especially, who manages to control the 1-tech with his left arm while gaining ground towards the backer. Once Pouncey leaves, Feiler takes over and drives him past the opposite hash. The movement creates such a chasm that the back, Kerrith Whyte, winds the play backside rather than trying to press the play-side edge.
Finally, just for fun, here’s an outside zone RPO (run-pass option) where Feiler tries to reach Aaron Donald to his left. Watch Donald swim inside then immediately redirect to get a piece of Whyte and effect the play. Don’t criticize Feiler here. He’s correct to anticipate a hard reach. Aaron Donald is simply a freak.
GAP RUNS and SHORT YARDAGE
The zone techniques at guard are not much different than those at tackle. It makes sense that Feiler seemed comfortable here. Techniques that are predominant to guard play, like pulling and trapping and digging out 1-techs on short yardage plays, are where Feiler struggled most.
The Steelers, recognizing Feiler’s inexperience, asked him to pull just once as they did most of their pulling against the Rams with Pouncey and DeCastro. It was a simple guard-out, or “Down” concept, where Feiler’s assignment was to pull to the play-side (his left) and kick out the edge defender (in this case, LA’s Clay Matthews). Villanueva was to block down on the 3-tech while McDonald climbed to the play-side linebacker. Ideally, the ball carrier would run into the hole between McDonald’s seal and Feiler’s kickout.
On a kickout block like this, the puller needs to get his head between the defender and the hole into which the back is running. This way, the defender cannot play off the block into the hole. Feiler’s inexperience shows here. He does not get his head upfield. He strikes Matthews squarely and then fails to control him with his upfield arm as Matthews disengages. Matthews falls back inside to make the tackle for a short gain on a play that is blocked well otherwise.
Feiler, as you may have noticed, also struggled with his pad level on the pull. He made good contact with Matthews but he was too high at the point of contact. The same thing was true on the following short yardage play, a 3rd and 1 situation where the Steelers ran a wedge scheme.
Wedge is an elementary short yardage concept that turns the interior of the line into a wall behind which the back inserts himself and pushes forward. The interior linemen all block down while the end men on the line (McDonald and Villanueva) turn their defenders out. The key to making it work is movement. If the offensive line can’t move the defense off the ball, that “wall” becomes an obstacle for the back rather than an asset.
This is exactly what happens here. All the Steelers’ blockers, but Feiler in particular, are too high coming off the ball. Leverage is everything when trying to move a defender. Linemen are taught “low man wins” from the time they first put their hand in the dirt. The failure to get low and drive his legs prohibits Feiler from creating movement in the A-gap. The back (Jaylen Samuels) cannot tuck in behind the “wall,” and the box safety is able to slip through the B-gap and stop Samuels short of the first down.
Feiler’s experience at tackle, where he is used to playing more erect, is likely the culprit for his poor technique here (although, personally, I think the two-point stance the line is using is detrimental as well). Whatever the case, he will need to learn to play lower to conquer the challenge of short yardage blocking in the trenches.
Feiler’s struggles in the last two GIFs are understandable because he lacked the necessary reps to perfect the technique work that would allow him to execute well. He seems athletic enough to be good at pulling and, hopefully, will learn to play with better leverage. With proper reps, he should improve in these areas.
The chemistry he’s already developed with Pouncey seems excellent, and it bodes well for the Steelers’ ability to run a variety of zone schemes. Once he becomes more comfortable at the position, Feiler should become an upgrade over the departed Foster as a run-blocker.
Up next: Breaking down Feiler’s performance in pass protection against the Rams and his battle with Aaron Donald.