This is the final piece in a three-part series examining the offense new coordinator Matt Canada is likely to install in Pittsburgh and the personnel required to run it. I have linked to the first two parts of the series below. Here, we will look at potential changes on the offensive line to accommodate Canada’s system.
The offensive line was Pittsburgh’s weakest position group in 2020. After ranking near the top of the league in PFF positional grades the past few seasons, the Steelers slipped to 13th for their guards, 22nd for their tackles and 29th at center. Put whatever stock you want in PFF grades, but the decline in play was obvious. This was especially true in the run game, where the Steelers finished last in the league in yards per game and were below the league success rate no matter where they ran the ball. They were especially ineffective running at Alejandro Villanueva (left tackle) and David DeCastro (right guard), where they finished 9% below the median for success:
Clearly, the Steelers need to prioritize the line this off-season, something they have not done in recent years. Other than Chuks Okorafor, who was taken with the 92nd overall pick in 2018, they have not selected an offensive lineman in the top 100 of any draft since choosing DeCastro in the 1st round in 2012. The Steelers have been surviving on low-cost signings, late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents for the better part of a decade. Despite occasional hits (Ramon Foster, Villanueva), this habit has caught up to them. They desperately need an infusion of talent up front. With little money to spend in free agency, they must invest high draft picks to acquire it.
What types of linemen should they target? With Ben Roethlisberger returning, players who can pass protect remain a priority. Presumably, though, the Steelers will look to run the ball more with Canada than they did under Randy Fichtner. Pittsburgh threw it nearly 70% of the time in the two seasons Fichtner had a healthy Roethlisberger. That strategy, and the resulting disappearance of the run game, proved fatal in 2020. A reconstructed run game will be essential to their success.
Canada’s two favorite run schemes as a college coordinator were the gap scheme, which demands physical blockers to push defenders off the ball, and outside zone, a compliment to the gap play that requires linemen to move laterally.
Here’s San Francisco running counter-gap, a power concept where the edge player is kicked out, the front-side linemen block down and a puller (or pullers) lead up on the linebackers:
The 49ers are running this with some Canada-inspired jet motion to widen the Will linebacker (59). The combination of the motion, which removes the Will from the box, and the movement up front creates a huge seam for the back:
Pay particular attention to the way the San Francisco linemen roll their hips into contact, punch their defenders and move their feet. None of this is evident in the GIF below, where we see the Steelers run a similar concept. Pittsburgh’s linemen pop up from their two-point stances, turn their hips and try to shield defenders from the path of the ball-carrier. It’s a passive form of run-blocking that relies on finesse and technique. Unfortunately, the guys in black are the nails in this scenario while the white jerseys are the hammers. Gap is a feckless scheme when a line fails to create movement.
The Steelers, with their emphasis on athleticism over physicality, were better-suited to run the outside zone scheme. On outside zone, blockers try to reach the far shoulder of the immediate defender to the play-side. The movement is lateral, not vertical, with the running back aiming for a point just outside the tight end, where he can hit the edge or or cut up depending on the flow of the defense. The blocking on outside zone looks like this:
The GIF of this play is below. You can see how Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and DeCastro cut off or control their defenders. James Conner should be able to find a seam somewhere between Villanueva and DeCastro. But left guard Kevin Dotson (69), whose strength is more as a vertical power blocker, gives up his chest, gets driven into the backfield and dumped at Conner’s feet. This essentially kills the play. Dotson showed great promise as a rookie, but will have to improve his footwork to better execute this particular scheme.
Here are the 49ers running the same play:
Watch how, with no penetration, the horizontal seams emerge, giving the back a clear cut. This is a particularly great job by San Francisco’s right tackle, who runs out of his stance to overtake the three-technique (#94) and cut him off before he can get to the ball-carrier:
Outside zone is an excellent compliment to the gap concept. OZ gets a defense thinking laterally, then gap knocks them off the ball once they do. Like anything, though, these plays have to be executed properly to succeed. The 49ers are physical and technically-sound up front, and it shows. The Steelers? Not so much. To execute Canada’s schemes, they will need to change both their personnel and their philosophy.
Those changes are already underway. New line coach Adrian Klemm has a reputation for demanding physicality, which bodes well for the gap scheme. And Klemm’s assistant, Chris Morgan, worked under Kyle Shanahan in Washington and Atlanta, where the outside zone play was a staple of the offense. This should help players like Dotson better execute the scheme.
Personnel-wise, with Pouncey having retired and Villanueva unlikely to be re-signed, change is also imminent. The Steelers will look for their replacements in a draft deep on line talent. They should target versatile players who are powerful and can move their feet. They should also target linemen high in the draft who have the potential to start immediately rather than continuing to mine for bargains and projects.
Here are some options in the first two rounds they may consider:
Likely candidates: Christan Darrisaw, OT/Virginia Tech; Teven Jenkins, OT/Oklahoma State; Jalen Mayfield, OT/Michigan.
I don’t know which of these tackles the Steelers prefer, but Mayfield played in just two games in 2020 and fifteen for his college career. The Steelers like players with experience in the first round so I’m focusing elsewhere.
Darrisaw was under-recruited out of high school but blossomed into one of the best offensive tackles in the country. At 6’5-315, he overpowers smaller defenders. In the GIF below, Darrisaw (left tackle, #77) drives a Boston College end from the hash to the numbers on an outside zone play, eventually turning him to seal a lane for the back:
And here, on a screen pass, he shows his athleticism by getting downfield and blocking a BC linebacker (#14) three times to escort his receiver to the end zone (as the GIF begins, Darrisaw is approaching the hash at the 25 yard line):
There just aren’t many players Darrisaw’s size who can move this way. His athleticism makes him ideal for zone blocking and his quick feet and long arms make him an excellent pass protector.
My question about Darrisaw involves his physicality. I watched every snap of Virginia Tech’s game against BC and I never saw Darrisaw impose his will on a defender. He overwhelmed some smaller players and his athleticism popped. But he played high out of his stance, he didn’t demonstrate a nasty streak and, because Tech ran no gap schemes, he never had to block down on bigger defensive tackles. He would do well in Randy Fichtner’s offense, where his finesse-blocking and pass protection skills would be ideal. Whether he can play physically enough to execute some of Canada’s schemes is a concern.
Jenkins (6’6-320) is about the same size as Darrisaw but a very different player. He is more physical and not nearly as athletic. He is well-seasoned, having made 35 starts at Oklahoma State. Jenkins (right tackle, #73) will give you plays like this in the run game, where he recognizes a gap-exchange stunt from the Texas defense, passes off a pinching end then picks up the linebacker and buries him:
That’s beautiful execution on the inside zone scheme. Here he is mauling a Texas defender on outside zone. Jenkins (right tackle, #73) gets stale-mated at the snap but creates movement by firing his feet and eventually drives his opponent into the bench area. His aggression in the run game is exciting to watch.
Pass protection is a different story. Jenkins has not perfected this aspect of his game by a longshot. Here, his clunky footwork puts him in bad position and he gets dumped on his back-side. His pass-sets are often too upright and he struggles to bend against speed rushers as they turn the edge. I wouldn’t say Jenkins is a poor pass protector but he must improve to stand a chance against the better edge players in the league.
It’s doubtful the Steelers will have the luxury of picking between Darrisaw and Jenkins, as one (or perhaps both) will be gone by 1:24. Darrisaw, in particular, may go higher. If both are indeed available, Pittsburgh’s decision will involve style. They will have to choose between the athleticism of Darrisaw or the physicality of Jenkins. It’s temping to want the brawler here, but Darrisaw has the bigger upside. He’d be a great pick in this spot.
Likely candidates: Landon Dickerson, C/Alabama; Creed Humphrey, C/Oklahoma; Alex Leatherwood, OT/Alabama; Liam Eichenberg, OT/Notre Dame.
If there’s a run on the better tackles in round one, the Steelers may opt for a running back or a linebacker in that spot and address the line in round two. I wrote recently about my affinity for Dickerson, who should be available when they draft at 2:55. Creed Humphrey is a solid option in this spot as well.
Dickerson’s teammate, Alex Leatherwood, is a difficult prospect to assess. Some draft pundits have him pegged as a mid-first round pick while others have him falling into the late second round. Leatherwood is similar to Darrisaw in a lot of ways — he has good feet and athleticism but is not particularly physical, and he may do best on a team that throws the ball a lot. His pass protection skills are excellent. Below, we see Leatherwood (left tackle, #70) stay square on a pinch from a Notre Dame edge player then pass him off to pick up a twisting linebacker:
In the run game, while Leatherwood is not a mauler, he uses his quickness well to get onto defenders. Once he does, his 6’6-320 pound frame does the rest:
The same is true for Notre Dame tackle Liam Eichenberg. Eichenberg (left tackle, #74) is a good technician, especially in pass protection, where he kicks well out of his stance, uses his hands effectively and does a nice job staying in front of defenders:
He’s a proficient run blocker, too. He could be a little stronger and more explosive off the ball but, again, his technique is solid and he uses it well. I especially like this block on an outside zone run against Florida State where he reaches the defender to his left, turns him and then falls off to disrupt the back-side pursuit. Eichenberg always seems to play to the whistle, which is a trait that should enhance his value.
It stands to reason the Steelers will have a shot at one of Dickerson, Humphrey, Leatherwood or Eichenberg when they select at 2:55. Dickerson is my preference, but all four would be worthy in this spot.
An improved run game is a must for the Steelers, both to help Ben Roethlisberger and provide Matt Canada the necessary tools to implement his system. Acquiring a center and a tackle with toughness who can move would go a long way towards accomplishing those goals.