The Steelers rushed for 152 yards on 42 carries in a 24-16 win against the Philadelphia Eagles in their second pre-season contest last Thursday night. It was the second week in a row the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and dominated the opposing defensive front.
Yes, it’s the pre-season. No, the Steelers have not faced a starting-caliber defensive front yet. The caveats are obvious. Still, there has been a significant shift in the tone, demeanor and performance of the big guys up front. A unit that was labeled “soft” by some after finishing last in the league in rushing in 2020 has transformed under the tutelage of new line coach Adrian Klemm into a group determined to knock opposing defenses off of the ball.
In particular, three players stood out from the contest in Philadelphia — second-year guard Kevin Dotson, rookie tackle Dan Moore Jr. and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Those young players were the catalysts for a dominating performance that saw the Steelers take over the football game in the middle of the second quarter and run the ball down Philly’s throat for the remainder of the way.
Critics may suggest the Steelers only found their run success once Philadelphia’s better defenders left the ballgame. That’s not quite true. While the Steelers didn’t produce any points on their first three drives, they ran the ball effectively. Unfortunately, they also damaged themselves with self-inflicted wounds. Holding penalties on Freiermuth and Trai Turner wiped out runs of 8 and 11 yards from Najee Harris and derailed the first two drives. On the third drive, a false start by Chuks Okorafor turned a 3rd and 2 into a 3rd and 7 they could not convert. The Steelers ran the ball 6 times for 22 yards in the 1st quarter but it could have been more.
You can’t discount the penalties, of course, and it was by no means a great performance across the board. Turner and Okorafor both struggled. Turner looked like who he is — a veteran who hasn’t played much football lately. After missing seven games in 2020 with various injuries then signing with the Steelers just before training camp, he was not sharp. His reactions were slow, like on this sack of Mason Rudolph. Turner (right guard, #51) was late passing off the 3-tech defensive tackle (76) to center Kendrick Green, then couldn’t recover to help right tackle Joe Haeg with the defensive end (93). While Green and Haeg both got blown up on the play, Turner, who had no defender of his own to block, assisted neither.
Earlier, he took a poor angle and was slow to cut off the back-side linebacker on a toss sweep play. A flatter first step would have helped Turner reach the backer:
And here he whiffed on a block when he failed to gather his feet and the backer undercut him to the ball-carrier:
It wasn’t all bad. Turner held his own at the point of attack when Philly’s Pro Bowl tackle Fletcher Cox was in the game. He has always been a bull as a drive-blocker. He also had a nice kick-out block on a counter play Harris took for 13 yards. But Turner’s timing is off. He needs reps to re-acclimate to live football and get in sync with his line-mates.
Okorafor looked rusty as well. He got beat for a pair of quarterback pressures. The first was on a spin move where he had too much weight on his outside leg and gave up an inside rush lane, which is a cardinal sin for a left tackle. On the second, edge rusher Josh Sweat simply dipped under Okorafor to get to Rudolph. And here, on the sweep play we saw above, his path was too flat and he missed the corner while pulling:
While the off-season narrative on Okorafor was that he played out of position at right tackle last year, and that he is better suited to play on the left side, he didn’t show that against the Eagles.
Still, despite the struggles of Turner and Okorafor, the Steelers were both willing and able to run the ball. Their success increased dramatically once Dotson and Moore entered the contest in the 2nd quarter. While the competition was not as great at that point, the Steelers’ mindset on offense and their ability to physically dominate the trenches was impressive.
Watch Dotson, Moore and Freiermuth on the left side of the football on this trap play. With guard B.J. Finney pulling, the trio caved in the right side of Philly’s defense. Dotson (69) blew the tackle off the ball while Moore (65) and Freiermuth (88) manhandled the backers. Moore drove his man back five yards while Freiermuth registered a pancake block. Running back Jaylen Samuels was barely touched until he reached the safeties 10 yards down the field:
On the following snap, the Steelers ran their counter-gap play. Dotson pulled and used a wide base to throw an effective kick-out block while Freiermuth wrapped around from the H-back position to record another pancake. By staying square, delivering solid blows and driving his legs to the whistle, the rookie tight end abused Philly’s inside backers on consecutive plays:
Two plays later, Freiermuth aligned as the H-back to the right. He made a subtle but effective reach block to seal the edge so quarterback Dwayne Haskins had a clear throwing lane on this quick out that converted a 3rd and 2. The Steelers loved Freiermuth’s combination of athleticism and toughness coming out of Penn State. You can see it here as he displayed good lateral quickness to reach the end then wheeled his hips to pin him inside:
In the 3rd quarter, the Steelers ran up and down the field on the backs of Dotson and Moore. First, Dotson (left guard) moved his feet well to seal a linebacker who was trying to undercut him. And Moore (left tackle) simply buried the defensive end. Unfortunately, Samuels missed the cut. Had Samuels stuck his left foot in the ground as he reached the line of scrimmage he could have burst upfield behind Dotson for a nice gain. He took the play wide, however, and was dropped in his tracks:
On the next play, the Steelers ran left again. Moore’s down block opened the door to the edge and the chip Dotson got on his pull helped Anthony McFarland turn the corner:
On 3rd and 1, the Steelers did it again. Dotson mauled the tackle while Moore turned out the end to allow McFarland to move the chains. Moore could have done a better job locking out with his right arm to keep the defender from disengaging. But he accomplished his primary objective on a short-yardage run by winning inside position to prevent penetration:
I could post half a dozen more clips that show the Steelers’ offensive line, and Dotson and Moore in particular, knocking the Eagles off the ball. For the sake of brevity, I’ll pick two.
First, near the goal line, Moore did a nice job chipping the tackle before climbing to block the backer. This is good zone technique and would have resulted in a bigger play had Samuels not again missed the cut (he needed to go inside of Moore, square his shoulders and make the first down). Tight end Zach Gentry (81) got into the act as well. Gentry, who blocked well in the Hall of Fame game against Dallas, showed his improved strength and power by washing the pinching end down into the A-gap:
The second clip shows nice down blocks by Moore and Dotson on the front-side of the counter-gap play while Gentry wrapped around and drove the linebacker out of the frame. Only a poor trap block from Finney (his head was on the wrong side) prevented this from being a bigger play:
While the obligatory grains of salt must be taken, it sure was fun watching the line abuse Philly’s front seven for two and a half quarters. Freiermuth, Moore and Dotson, who are ages 22, 22 and 24, respectively, looked like grown men playing against kids. Gentry, meanwhile, continued to be a pleasant surprise. The Steelers have been extremely physical the first two weeks of the preseason. The leaders of that movement are young players who perform with an edge. If Pittsburgh is going to run the ball with any authority in 2021, that’s precisely what they’ll need.
RUN GAME NOTES
- We’ve seen a lot of guard trap, inside zone and counter-gap from the Steelers this pre-season. Not much outside zone or jet sweep yet. No doubt Matt Canada is keeping some things under his hat until the opener.
- I don’t think it’s unreasonable to question whether Moore could push Okorafor for the starting job at left tackle. While Moore is a rookie, he was a three-year starter in the SEC and seems mature as a player. Okorafor was a project from a mid-major school who has been mediocre through 19 career starts. The Steelers would likely prefer to have Okorafor protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. Moore, however, seems far more physical as a run blocker. I’d love to see Moore get a shot against better competition these last two pre-season games.
- Jaylen Samuels had good stats against Philly (10 carries, 45 yards) but was predominantly running through cavernous holes. When he had to navigate clutter he wasn’t nearly as effective. He reminds me of a high school back who wants to take everything outside because the inside picture is too cloudy for him. The problem is, Samuels doesn’t have the speed to be an outside runner. His poor vision may cost him a roster spot.
- McFarland looks stronger and more decisive this season and, stylistically, gives Canada plenty of options on how to use him. He is a nice compliment to Najee Harris and has solidified himself as the No. 2 running back.
- Harris, meanwhile, looks like everything Steelers’ fans hoped he’d be. If he stays healthy, and if the line continues to run-block well, Harris will have a monster rookie campaign.