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Steelers Vertex: Loss vs. gain at offensive tackle

The Steelers get back Zach Banner for 2021 after missing 15 games last season.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

With changes in the Steelers roster from 2020 to 2021, we’re going to highlight players lost at a position and the production of the assumed replacement. This week we looking at the loss of Alejandro Villanueva, the shifting of Chukwuma Okorafor, and the return of Zach Banner at the offensive tackle position.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

First, we realize there are other players left out of this discussion such as Joe Haeg and Dan Moore Jr. For now, we’re trying to keep to the players who are expected to be the starters.

When it comes to statistics for offensive linemen, there aren’t much. There’s a few things here and there we can talk about so I will do my very best. Unfortunately, one of the few numbers that are out there are the players scores from Pro Football Focus. Although these are merely a subjective grading system, they at least add some data into the mix whether or not you want to trust the scoring or not.

In 2020, Alejandro Villanueva played 1,100 snaps at left tackle. It was every offensive snap the Steelers had during the season. During that time, Villanueva had four penalties and was charged with three sacks on the season. His overall score according to PFF was a 74.6 with a 77.1 pass blocking score and a 60.9 run blocking score.

Zach Banner only appeared in one game in 2020 before being lost for the season with his ACL injury. During that time, he played 59 offensive snaps where he had no penalties and no sacks given up. Banner had a PFF overall score of 63.7 last season with a 52.1 pass blocking grade and a 69.3 run blocking grade. To throw in Chuks Okorafor’s numbers just for reference sake, he played 1,035 snaps on offense in 2020 where he was charged with five penalties and three sacks allowed. Okorafor scores for PFF were a 57.5 overall with a 63.2 pass blocking score and a 49.0 run blocking score.

One measurable where the Steelers won’t see much of a difference on the offensive line is size. Although the Steelers will be losing the 6’9” 320 pound Alejandro Villanueva, there’s not much of a difference with the 6’8” 360 pound Banner. Honestly, the playing weight for Zach Banner is a bit of a mystery as he has fluctuated throughout his NFL career. Just to be thorough, Chuks Okorafor checks in at 6‘6“ and 320 pounds.

The only other numbers which could really help to tell the difference in the offensive linemen come as both a pro and a con. The first one is the pro where Zach Banner is only 27 years old versus Villanueva who will turn 33 years old early in the 2021 NFL season. A difference in numbers that doesn’t work in Steelers’ favor is that Zach Banner only has 302 offensive snaps throughout his entire NFL career where Alejandra Villanueva has 6,123 just in the regular season. In fact, Villanueva has played 3,437 consecutive snaps left tackle for the Steelers between the regular and postseason. The last time someone played a snap at left tackle for the Steelers not named Alejandro Villanueva was in Week 16 of 2017 in Houston where the Steelers handily defeated the Texans on Christmas Day and Villanueva was able to rest at the end of the game.

All these numbers sound nice, but we all know what we’re waiting for. This is really all about the film.

The Film Line:

Zach Banner has slightly less than one game’s worth of NFL film, so we’re going to look at that game, Week 1 of 2020, when he was the starting right tackle. Alejandro Villanueva played left tackle in that game. We’ll start with a look at the run game.

Week 1, second quarter, 12:35. Zach Banner (#72) is third from the left.

Leonard Williams (#99) is a good defensive tackle, he’s made the Pro Bowl once so far in his career and had a really good season in 2020, with 11.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss. On this play Zach Banner gets a hold of him and twists, putting Williams off balance and out of the play.

Week 1, third quarter, 14:18. Zach Banner is second from the left.

The Steelers ran a lot of inside zone in 2020, and Zach Banner’s ability in that scheme was a big factor in Benny Snell’s big game against a top ten rushing defense. His help on #99 wins the lane for Snell and his block on the middle line backer makes it a bigger play. If you watch #99 (L. Williams again), he drives Stefan Wisniewski backwards, but with the space Banner’s initial contact created, Snell is through the lane before it closes.

Zach Banner was in for one play without Wisniewski in this game, a pass play where he was next to Kevin Dotson, he was injured on that play and missed the rest of the season. Banner played next to a guard the Steelers wouldn’t play another snap in 2020, who was a weak point in run blocking and the Steelers still put up their second best rushing total of the season (they ran for more against the Texans and their league worst run defense in Week 3) with Benny Snell facing a tough run defense.

Week 1, fourth quarter, 10:22. Alejandro Villanueva (#78) is second from the left.

Stefan Wisniewski and Alejandro Villanueva both lose their blocks on this play, and Benny Snell runs into his own blockers and the run is stuffed. This type of block is one Villanueva typically did well at, but on this play the defensive lineman is able to get leverage on Villanueva and control the block.

Week 1, second quarter, 5:10. Zach Banner is second from the left, Alejandro Villanueva is second from the right.

As pass blockers, Banner and Villanueva have similar length, and they have a similar weakness, getting too high and losing leverage. On this play Banner is changing directions and loses leverage, and the bull rush drives him back into a useless position. Villanueva does better, but his man gets off his block to record the sack.

Week 1, first quarter, 6:17. Zach Banner (#72) is the right tackle. Alejandro Villanueva (#78) is the left tackle.

This time it is Villanueva that loses leverage and is driven backwards. Banner on this play shows his strength in catching the defensive lineman who tries to cut inside in front of him.

Zach Banner lived up to his billing as a powerful run blocker in Week 1, and wasn’t a bad pass blocker where he’s not on Villanueva’s level, but not far off either.

Alejandro Villanueva has a reputation as a great pass blocker, but that reputation is based more on Ben Roethlisberger getting the ball out quickly than Villanueva being an excellent blocker. Plays like the above one where he is driven back into the pocket are more common than you might expect, while he doesn’t get beat on run blocks as much as his reputation might cause you to believe. Villanueva has been reliable at sealing defenders out of run lanes, even if you can’t rely on him to move a defensive lineman out of a lane.

While the Steelers are getting Zach Banner back, and losing Alejandro Villanueva, Banner looks to be the right tackle in 2021. It will be Chukwuma Okorafor replacing Villanueva at left tackle, like he replaced Banner at right tackle at the end of Week 1.

Week 3, second quarter, 10:22. Chukwuma Okorafor (#76) is the right tackle.

Chukwuma Okorafor brings a similar level of run blocking to Villanueva, he’s usually reliable sealing defenders out of the play, and also not very good at moving them. The biggest difference I see with his run blocking versus Villanueva is I would rank Okorafor better at inside zone blocking, he gets to his second-level blocks better than Villanueva did.

Week five, second quarter, 3:19. Chukwuma Okorafor is third from the left.

Okorafor is also a good pass blocker, and should do well on the left side in 2021. I like this play because Okorafor is able to anchor tight to the quarterback and keep Fletcher Cox (#91) from disrupting the pocket even as he moves with him around the pocket. Okorafor has a tough assignment on this play, and gives his quarterback time and a place to move, and the Steelers get a 17-yard gain.

The Point:

Neither Zach Banner nor Chukwuma Okorafor are going to be going to the Pro-Bowl or getting All-NFL votes, but they are solid tackles and if both are healthy, the offensive tackle position will likely be better as a whole than it was in 2020, especially in zone run schemes. Although Alejandro Villanueva is a two-time Pro Bowler, the production he was giving Steelers was not something they felt they should retain at this point in his career. Hopefully a coaching change at a youth movement at the tackle position will work out well for the Steelers in 2021. Hopefully.