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J.C. Hassenauer shows how much difference a year can make

The 2020 Steelers worst lineman flipped the script in 2021.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

After the awful collapse at the end of the Steelers 2020 season, I was looking at the offensive line and found a startling correlation between J.C. Hassenauer playing and the Steelers offense being terrible and the team losing games.

I can sum it up in one stat: when J.C. Hassenauer played 25% or more of the snaps the Steelers averaged 18 points a game and went 1-4. When he didn’t? 30.3 points a game and an 11-1 record.

That’s the kind of swing the Steelers are seeing when T.J. Watt is healthy or not in 2021. How could one man make that much of a difference? The answer is he was an undrafted rookie, the 3rd string center to start the season and he should have sat on the practice squad all year. When injuries decimated the line and Covid-19 limited options to bring in other players, Hassenauer was forced to play at center, and in one awful loss to the Bengals, at guard.

As I explained in the article linked above, it wasn’t all on him, and it’s hard to blame someone for their play when everyone can agree that he shouldn’t have been put in that situation, but we need to talk about it now, so I can contrast his 2020 season with what we saw against the Browns in 2021 when he was right in the middle of a 188 yard rushing performance from Najee Harris.

I’ll show a play from the Steelers 2020 game against the Washington Football Team, and compare to a play from this past week.

2020 Week 13, 1st quarter, 11:51

J.C. Hassenauer (#60) is the center.

Hassenauer gets hands on the defensive tackle, and holds his ground, he doesn’t get pushed backwards on this play, but he allows the defensive tackle to move laterally and mirror the running back, and there is no chance of a gain in this situation, in large part because Hassenauer was overmatched and couldn’t control his man.

2021 Week 17, 1st quarter, 10:07

J.C. Hassenauer (#60) is the center.

These combo blocks helped Hassenauer a lot, and while John Leglue (#77) leaves the block too quickly, it creates an opportunity for Hassenauer.

Notice that the lineman does move to screen left after the help from Leglue, and Hassenauer uses that little movement to get position. The defender leans to screen left, but the steps he takes are caused by Hassenauer. Hassenauer is able to drive his man out of the lane and win lower position, and it leads to a nice hole for Najee Harris. When the tackle tries to move back into the run lane. Not only does it take the defender time to get back into the gap, Hassenauer drives him three yards backwards before he makes it back to Harris.

Lastly you have to love the end of the play. Still pushing, still driving his man, finishing the block.

2020 Week 13, 2nd quarter, 5:38

J.C. Hassenauer is the center.

I want to contrast a few lineman on this play. First watch Matt Feiler (LG, #71) and David DeCastro (#66, RG). DeCastro has double team help from the RT, Chukwuma Okorafor. DeCastro goes low and Okorafor gets above the tackle, driving him back and down. That’s where this run is supposed to go, the line keeps that tackle low and back so Snell can go right over him. Matt Feiler was never good at combo blocks, or any group blocking concepts, he shows his main strength on this play, he fires off low, getting hand position and using his incredible strength to just drive his man back. Alejandro Villanueva is trying to do his part of a tag team block, Feiler isn’t having it. But you can see from Feiler how to win a 1v1 block in this situation.

Now look at Jerald Hawkins (#65) and J.C. Hassenauer (#60). Both fire off the line too high, lose leverage, get stood up and put in the path of the runner. Hassenauer is being controlled by the defensive tackle here, and he is even discarded to the side at the end of the play.

2021 Week 17, 1st quarter, 2:54

J.C. Hassenauer (#60) is the center.

On Derek Watt’s 4th down conversion, Hassenauer and John Leglue (#77) need to get the defensive tackle out of the run lane and stay low, so Watt can fall forward. Hassenauer wins the block on Malik McDowell (#58) with his low drive. After Watt hits the pile, you can see McDowell was moved to Hassenauer’s left, right into Leglue’s grasp. It’s not as impressive as Trai Turner’s absolute destruction of #96, but it is a win, and the Steelers got a fresh set of downs because of it.

Hassenauer in 2020 had solid hands, and he fought hard, but he wasn’t polished, he was frequently too high coming out of his stance, and while he got hands on people, he couldn’t control his man.

In 2021 his technique has improved, he stays lower and uses his hands more effectively. So while 2020 his effort and tenacity showed up with how hard he fought to hold his ground, it shows up in 2021 with him finishing blocks.

I want to show one last play from the Browns game:

2021 Week 17, 2nd quarter, 14:53

J.C. Hassenauer is the center.

It’s not the easiest thing to see from this angle, but Hassenauer is key to two blocks on this play. His first assignment is coming hard off the snap into #93, who is lined up at an angle to Hassenauer. He does that, and it sets up John Leglue to drive #93 out of the lane. Hassenauer then turns to help Trai Turner keep the other defensive tackle, #92 out of the play.

He does a good job with both assignments, and you can see the payoff of having a year in the NFL and in this offense.

This matters a lot because the Steelers 3rd round pick, Kendrick Green, is taking a lot of heat for his play as a rookie, and most of it is well-earned. There are a good number of people convinced that the Steelers need to replace him or move him from center. I’m not going to take a side in that, the Steelers are going to make that decision and don’t need my help to do it. But if they choose to stick with Kendrick Green there will be a lot of people upset about it (especially in local sports media). There were a lot of people confused why the Steelers would bring J.C. Hassenauer back, and make him the primary backup center, after the atrocious year he had in 2020.

Kendrick Green is a much more athletic and talented football player than J.C. Hassenauer is. The Steelers inside run game focus worked well, but it was kind of forced on them by Hassenauer’s limitations. It worked for this game, but if the Ravens expect to see the same this Sunday, it’s going to be a much tougher battle for the Steelers run game.

Hassenauer went from the guy you can’t afford to have on the field to a very valuable reserve in one year. The Steelers will be looking for Kendrick Green to make a similar leap in his game.