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How a healthy Trai Turner could help transform the Steelers’ rushing attack

The Steelers’ latest addition to the offensive line could have ae big impact on the team’s running game in 2021.

NFL: DEC 11 Chargers at Panthers Photo by Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers signed guard Trai Turner last week just hours after releasing veteran David DeCastro.

Like DeCastro, Turner is a former Pro Bowler who played through injuries in 2020. And, like DeCastro, his performance suffered as a result. Following five straight Pro Bowl appearances from 2015-2019, Turner was rated the worst run-blocking guard in the league by Pro Football Focus last season. He will save the Steelers $5.75 million on the salary cap compared to DeCastro. While the savings is nice, the real issue involves which Turner the Steelers are getting: the perennial Pro Bowler or the shell of that player from 2020.

Trai Turner (2019)

In 2019, a healthy Turner was the rock of the offensive line for the Carolina Panthers. At 6’3-315, he was a stout, powerfully-built interior lineman. He could move defenders off the ball as well as pull and block in space. He was a smart player who understood how to pick up twists, loops and trades by a defense and was above-average in pass protection. At age 26, he seemed to be in the prime of his career.

In Carolina’s Week 8 game, a 30-20 win over the Tennessee Titans, Turner and his fellow linemen helped star tailback Christian McCaffrey rush for 146 yards. Since running the football is a chief concern for the Steelers, the film clips below showcase Turner’s run-blocking in that contest. Turner is the right guard (#70) in all of these clips.

The first thing that jumped out watching him was his strength coming off the football. Below we see Carolina run a one-back Power concept. This is a gap scheme that requires vertical movement from the offensive line. Turner and the right tackle (72) began by double-teaming the 3-tech DT, with Turner eventually taking over the block. Watch how Turner kept a wide base to generate power, moved his feet and drove the DT to the second level. He finished the play with a shove, indicating he was blocking to the whistle:

Here’s one-back Power again. The Panthers ran it that day against Tennessee like they invented the play. Part of the reason they had so much success was because Turner was creating movement in the A-gap. Watch as he got off the ball with a low pad level, exploded into the 3-tech then chipped off to the linebacker. Turner was a bit late climbing to the backer but showed great hustle to chase the play and find someone to block:

Here’s one more clip that showcased his power. This is a lead play from the 1 yard line out of 22 personnel in which the Titans challenged their big guys up front to knock the defense off the football. Turner complied, getting under the pads of his defender and jolting him back across the goal line. This should bring joy to Steelers’ fans who remember Pittsburgh’s feckless attempts to run the ball in short yardage situations last season.

While power at the point of contact was Turner’s signature feature as a run-blocker, he also demonstrated he could operate in space. Here’s a clip where he moved laterally to his left to prevent the 3-tech from crossing his face then continued to pursue the block even as the ball-carrier stretched the run to the opposite sideline. Watch Turner shove the tackle late in the play. This is not dirty. It’s doing what he’s coached to do, which is to finish every play with his hands on a defender:

This next clip features outside zone, a play Matt Canada is expected to run a great deal of in Pittsburgh. Turner had the difficult task of climbing to block the playside linebacker (55). While Turner didn’t exactly engage the backer, he got out quickly enough to cut off the backer’s path to the football. The backer could not come downhill as a result and had to pursue the play vertically. Turner again stayed after him, blocking until the whistle:

While it might not look like Turner did much here, the speed at which he operated and the angle he took to close the backer’s path to the football are examples of the subtle things effective linemen do to create successful run plays.

Here’s another. It’s one-back Power again and Turner has another double-and-chip with the right tackle on the 3-tech (90) and backside backer (59). The late shift from the tackle alerted Turner he was probably slanting to the left. Rather than try to double team him, which would have opened up the A-gap, Turner gave him a quick shove and handed him off to the OT before climbing to the backer. Watch how square Turner stayed as he climbed. By not turning his shoulders, he closed the backer’s alley to the football. The backer had to come over top of Turner as a result. So, while Turner didn’t necessarily block the backer here, his understanding of Tennessee’s line stunt and his body positioning kept the backer from having a direct path to McCaffrey:

Finally, we see Turner do something the Steelers have asked their guards to do for years: pull and trap. This is counter-gap, a Pittsburgh staple. Turner was responsible for kicking out the edge player to his left. Look how quickly he got out of his stance, how flat his path to the block was, how he cut off the defender’s path to the ball by attacking his upfield shoulder and how he ran his feet on contact to create movement. This is textbook stuff from a guard. You can’t do it much better than Turner did here:

So, in 2019, the film showed that Trai Turner was playing with explosiveness, power, smarts and passion. He looked like everything you’d expect from a player who’d made five consecutive Pro Bowls.

Trai Turner: 2020

Turner was traded that off-season to the Los Angeles Chargers in exchange for another perennial Pro Bowler, offensive tackle Russell Okung. It seemed like a good deal for both teams at the time. But Turner suffered a groin injury early in the season that caused him to miss six games, and when he returned he bore little resemblance to the player the Chargers thought they were getting.

A groin injury is especially troublesome for an interior lineman. Power players like Turner rely on their hips, legs and core for explosive movements. In the following clips, all taken from the Chargers’ late-season win against Denver, we see how Turner’s injury compromised his ability to move fluidly and generate power.

Watch him (right guard, #70) on this inside zone run. He is tentative putting force into the ground and driving his legs. He doesn’t come off low like he did in the earlier clips and he doesn’t roll his hips. This suggests he is hesitant to put stress on his groin. Without that stress, and the push it generates, he cannot sustain his block. His defender falls back inside to assist on the tackle for a short gain:

Something similar occurs on this outside zone play. Turner has to reach the playside (left) shoulder of the 3-tech tackle. To do so, he needs to spring from his stance to gain outside leverage on the block. He simply can’t do it. Turner shuffles at the snap, cannot get to his aiming point and is driven into the backfield:

Here’s one more. Again, no get-off, no leverage, no power. This looks nothing like the player we saw in those Carolina clips. It seems very unlikely that Turner, at just 27 years of age, suddenly lost his technique and explosiveness. The injury was clearly hampering his play:

While the physical impact of the injury was obvious, the time and reps it cost affected his communication with his new teammates. On several occasions, Turner failed to execute switches or combo blocks, suggesting he was either very rusty, not acclimated to the new offense or struggling to sync up with his fellow linemen.

Here’s one example. LA runs an RPO against this “Under” look from the Broncos. Denver executes a “long stick” stunt, crashing the left side of their front to free up the middle linebacker (45). Turner should trade off with the right tackle and pick up the pinching edge player while leaving the backer for the OT. The OT stays with the pinch, however, and Turner blocks air. The backer comes unblocked to make the tackle for a short gain:

In the next clip, Turner is the one who fails to trade off against a stunt. He chases a pinching tackle and is late redirecting to block the backer, who again has an open window to the ball-carrier:

This problem showed itself repeatedly against Denver. While Turner was not sharp executing against Denver’s line movements, neither were his teammates. It makes you wonder how prepared the Chargers were up front. They did not look like a well-coached unit in this contest.

Finally, there is this clip. Turner executes his block effectively here. But watch him as the play continues. Once the running back is through the hole, most of LA’s linemen chase the play, looking to pick up an extra block. Some even catch the back and manage to push him forward. Not Turner. He watches from behind, making no effort to hustle or help his teammates:

This play occurred in the 4th quarter of a game that was tied 13-13 with the Chargers driving for what turned out to be the winning field goal. The fact that Turner appears to be going through the motions while his teammates are giving their all is troubling. In an interview with Sirius XM’s NFL Radio last week, Turner acknowledged that the injuries, the transition to a new team and the challenge of dealing with COVID made 2020 a particularly rough season. It shows in this clip.

The good news for Steelers’ fans is that, in the same interview, Turner proclaimed himself fully healed. “I’m back at 100 percent,” he said. “I’m feeling good. I’m just ready to come back and have a phenomenal season.”

Challenges await Turner in Pittsburgh, of course. The Steelers are reshuffling their entire line behind a new coordinator, a new line coach and a new starting running back. They will need to gel quickly to avoid some of the problems Turner faced in Los Angeles. However, playing on a one-year, $3 million prove-it deal, Turner should be extremely motivated to show that, at age 28, he remains one of the premier interior linemen in the game. If so, he will give the Steelers a powerful guard to pair with three other physical players up front — rookie center Kendrick Green, second-year guard Kevin Dotson and tackle Zach Banner. Those four, along with first-round pick Najee Harris, should provide the nucleus to make good on Pittsburgh’s promise to run the ball more effectively.