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Improved line play for the Steelers won’t be just physicality, but also technique and execution

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is revamped in 2021, but the improvement won’t just come from physicality.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the challenges the Steelers face heading into the 2021 season is to rebuild their once-stellar offensive line. Their play regressed significantly the past two seasons from its level under former coach Mike Munchack, who departed Pittsburgh in 2018. Munchack’s successor, Shaun Sarrett, was fired in January, resulting in the promotion of his assistant, Adrian Klemm. Klemm is now tasked with improving the performance of a unit that contributed to the league’s worst rushing attack.

Klemm has spoken at length this off-season about changing the mind-set up front. He is emphasizing physicality and moving people off the line of scrimmage. One step he plans to take in this transformation is to get the linemen out of the two-point stances they used regularly the past few seasons. Critics argue that two-point stances, while helping linemen in pass protection, result in them playing too high in the run game, creating less power at the point of attack. Klemm wants his linemen to get their hands in the dirt, fire off the football, stay low and move people. It’s a welcome change from a unit that has tried, unsuccessfully, to finesse-block defenses the past two seasons.

While the adjustment to their stances will both transform the mindset of the unit as well as help with their leverage, Klemm will have to eliminate some of the bad technique and poor execution that has crept into their play as well. Offensive line play, as much as any position group on the field, requires great attention to detail. While it’s certainly a physical job, physicality is not enough to succeed. Great technique, communication and execution is required as well. The Steelers have been neither physical nor sound up front the past two seasons. Klemm will need to teach his players to be technicians as well as brawlers.

For a better idea of what I’m referring to, let’s look at some film of the Steelers line from 2018 and then at their 2020 counterpart to see where their performance has slipped and what Klemm must do to sharpen it.

The 2018 Steelers Offensive Line

When talking offensive line technique, three factors stand out. The first is footwork, the second is hand placement and the third is leverage. A lineman wants to pound the ground with small, choppy steps from snap to whistle, which provide him a better base and greater odds of moving his opponent. He wants to win inside with his hands, meaning he wants to strike the chest of his target while not giving up his own chest. And he wants to gain vertical leverage on the block. “Low man wins” is a phrase every line coach in America has uttered at some point. A line that can do these things, in addition to playing hard and being physical, will be effective.

Munchack’s units tended to be proficient in all these areas. They were not the most physical in the league, but that was largely a part of how the run game had been adapted to accommodate Le’Veon Bell’s unique style, which required more horizontal movement than brute force. They played hard, though, and they were extremely sound from a technical standpoint.

Below we see video of two Steelers’ games from 2018 as evidence. The first clips are against New England and the latter ones against Carolina. In all of them, Steelers’ linemen play with good feet and good hand placement. They move defenders with sound technique. And they finish their blocks, which means they play hard to the whistle.

Take this play against the Patriots. Focus on left guard Ramon Foster (73). Foster’s assignment is to block New England’s one-technique tackle (#90). Because this is a gap block, there is no chip-off to a linebacker. Foster is one-on-one and needs to create movement. He does so by getting his hands inside, making first contact and taking short, choppy steps:

The photo below gives a better view of how Foster wins inside with his hands. Once he’s gotten into the chest of the defender, he’s gained control of the block:

If you watch the clip again, you will see center Maurkice Pouncey block back on the three-tech DT then chip off to get a piece of a defender filling from outside the box. You will see left tackle Alejandro Villanueva finish his block with a shove. You will see right tackle Matt Feiler knock his defender back with a strong punch to the chest then chase the football. This is a line that is executing soundly, playing scrappy and giving great effort.

Here’s another play from the New England game. I like right guard David DeCastro’s block here. Watch how patient he is as he approaches the linebacker milling around at the line of scrimmage. DeCastro can’t tell from the backer’s alignment if he’s coming on a blitz or bailing. So, rather than running at him and putting himself out of position, he takes small steps, keeps his chest square and then violently punches the backer at the point of contact. DeCastro’s strike turns the backer away from the play, eliminating his path to the ball-carrier:

Elsewhere, Foster and Feiler each do a nice job working their feet to create movement while Villanueva wins inside leverage with his hands and manages to lock up the edge player just long enough for running back Jaylen Samuels to scoot through the hole. This is terrific technique and execution by the big guys up front.

Here’s one more versus the Patriots. This is a zone run where the Steelers insert receiver Juju Smith-Schuster to block safety Devon McCourty (32) and leave Pouncey and Foster in a two-on-two combo against New England’s 0-tech nose and the box safety (#23).

Pouncey and Foster (labeled 1 and 2) have a combo block on the corresponding 1 and 2

The Patriots slant their nose to the right. Pouncey steps with him, then quickly redirects to thwart the safety, who is trying to blow the opposite A-gap. Foster, meanwhile, takes over the nose and drives him back inside with a wide base and good footwork. DeCastro also gets good movement (notice his hand placement). The Steelers make four yards from the +10 yard line, which is a win in the run game:

It’s interesting to note that the only lineman who executes poorly is Feiler, who lunges at the edge player (54) rather than moving his feet. Technique matters, and we see why here.

The next few clips are from Pittsburgh’s 2018 game against Carolina. On the first, watch the leg drive from Feiler (71) as he pushes a 4i tackle five yards off the line scrimmage. Feiler gets a nice chip from DeCastro to halt the tackle’s initial charge then simply digs in and moves him. Look at the bend in his left leg as he explodes into the defender. He takes a short first step to get his weight under him then uncoils. This looks just like it would if Feiler were driving a sled in practice:

On the next clip, watch how the feet of all the Steelers’ linemen never stop moving. Foster pulls here, but the five interior blockers (including tight end Vance McDonald) continue to chop away and pound the ground as the play progresses. This keeps them in contact and makes it hard for Carolina’s defenders to disengage (I especially love how Pouncey pursues the play, looking for an extra block, once running back James Conner has gotten upfield):

Finally, on this zone play, watch how square everyone stays up front. No one turns their shoulders (except Pouncey a bit, which became more of an issue for him after Munchack left). By staying square, they cover all gaps and prevent any penetration from Carolina’s front. This allows Conner to find a seam to the edge, where he cuts upfield behind a great block from receiver James Washington (13). Even Washington gets his hands inside and runs his feet on contact. Good habits are contagious when emphasized and taught properly.

The 2020 Steelers Offensive Line

While Sarrett was saddled with a line that was both older and less talented than the units Munchack worked with, his groups lacked the craftwork necessary to compensate.

Here we see them in Week 13 against Washington. In this first clip, there are issues just about everywhere. At tight end, McDonald plays with no base and is caved in by Chase Young. At left tackle, Villanueva’s base is also poor. He lunges at his playside defender and winds up on his face. At left guard, Feiler is too high, gets stood up and is knocked over by McDonald. At center, J.C. Hassenauer generates no power out of his stance. Rather than put force into the ground with his initial steps, he tippy-toes into his block. On the right side of the ball, neither DeCastro nor Okorafor move their feet. The result of the play reflects the line’s failure to get off the ball and use their legs effectively:

On this next clip, I don’t know what the Steelers are running. It feels like a draw because of how the linemen all pop up into pass sets and give ground. But neither Anthony McFarland nor Ben Roethlisberger sell draw. Whatever it is, you can’t block like this. To a man, every Washington defender makes first contact with a Steeler lineman. WFT are the hammers here and the Steelers are the nails. There’s only one word for this. It’s an ugly word that brings shame to offensive linemen like some sort of scarlet letter. The word is soft:

Soft is not in the nature of most linemen. It’s often something that is bred. Pittsburgh, by becoming so reliant on the pass, sapped a good deal of their line’s aggressiveness. The way they were taught to block, and the techniques they used, contributed to their lack of physicality.

On this final clip, the Steelers run a trap play with Feiler (left guard) pulling and kicking out the right edge player. As you can see from the photo below, it’s six to block six in the box. The Steelers should make positive yardage provided they cover up the Washington defenders:

DeCastro and Okorafor have a combo block on the 3-tech and backside linebacker. But they execute as though it’s a reach block on an outside zone play. This opens up the A-gaps like the parting of the Red Sea. McDonald, meanwhile, must climb to the playside backer. He trips over Okorafor, which is something that happens when the line call is miscommunicated. Neither backer gets blocked, and McFarland has nowhere to go with the football:

So, while Klemm is right to establish physicality as the theme of the 2021 line, he can’t ignore the technique and execution issues that hampered the performance of its predecessor. To run the football better, the Steelers will certainly have to knock people off the line of scrimmage. That begins, however, with better stances, better leverage, better footwork and better hand placement. In other words, the little things. When it comes to offensive line play, it’s incredible how much they matter.