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DeMarvin Leal’s utilization in the Steelers defense continues to expand

The third-round rookie is taking on a variety of responsibilities in the Steelers defense in only his fifth game.

NFL: SEP 11 Steelers at Bengals

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling on. In Week 5, third-round draft pick DeMarvin Leal added another position group to his resume. But did it work out well? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

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:

Already used in a variety of ways in the Steelers defense since T.J. Watt has been unavailable due to injury, DeMarvin Leal saw an even wider array of diverse alignments in Week 5. Already lining up as an outside linebacker on several snaps since Week 2, Leal saw his OLB snaps decreased in Week 5 from 22 the previous week to 15 according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). The new alignment for Leal was as a box defender at linebacker. In all, PFF has Leal taking one snap each at left inside linebacker, right inside linebacker, and middle linebacker.

As for his production, DeMarvin Leal only had one tackle in Week 5 in 23 defensive snaps. But where he did come through was having two passes defensed.

If looking at PFF defensive alignments, it also doesn’t hurt to simply throw out Leal’s PFF’s defensive scores. In Week 5, he actually had his lowest score of the season of a 41.3 with a 32.9 score for run defense and a 68.4 pass rush score.

There are still some question as to who actually blocked the field goal against the Bills in the first quarter. The Steelers official play-by-play breakdown credits Cameron Heyward with the block, but Leal‘s special team score of 92.2 on PFF shows they gave him credit for the blocked field goal.

The only way we’re going to find out for sure with these things is going to be to look at the film.

The Film Line:

DeMarvin Leal, as Dave stated, has been filling the role of edge defender with T.J. Watt out with injury, and he made an impact play right off the bat.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st Quarter, 14:54

DeMarvin Leal (#98) is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.

Leal shows off his strength here, navigating a chip and getting into position to shut down the pass lane to the running back. Josh Allen tries to slip the ball through, and Leal breaks it up.

That wouldn’t be the only time he got a hand on the ball.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st Quarter, 12:02

DeMarvin Leal (#98) is the defender just to the left of the hashmark.

As Dave stated the official stats credit Cameron Heyward with this field goal block, but it’s DeMarvin Leal who actually blocks the kick. Notice that Leal is wearing white arm sleeves, and Cameron Heyward has no arm sleeves.

The ball clearly strikes Leal’s arm. It’s not a big deal whose arm physically touches the ball. The real win here is Leal firing off the line, getting position and getting his arm up. Cameron Heyward ends up behind Leal and yet likely would have blocked the kick if it hadn’t hit Leal’s arm first.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st Quarter, 0:34

DeMarvin Leal (#98) is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.

Leal loses this rep, getting caught by the H-Back while moving laterally. He loses edge contain and is driven backwards into the path Myles Jack needs to take to limit the run. The Bills gain 7 yards because of it.

One thing that has shown up consistently in Leal’s film is these kinds of mistakes caused by lack of experience. But he also shows a quick learning curve.

Steelers vs. Bills, 2nd Quarter, 12:51

DeMarvin Leal (#98) is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.

The Bills run the same play in the second quarter, but this time Leal doesn’t get caught off-guard. He recognizes the play and drives the blockers inside. Leal keeps Myles Jack clean and Jack makes the tackle after a minimal gain. A quick learning curve is a very valuable skill in a young player, and fortunately for the Steelers DeMarvin Leal shows a good one.

Steelers vs. Bills, 2nd Quarter, 14:14

DeMarvin Leal (#98) is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.

The Bills try to attack Leal with speed to the edge, and while Leal isn’t able to make the tackle on the play, he gets into the path of the run, flattens the back’s path and gets a hand on him. This counts as a missed tackle, but it’s not a bad missed tackle as he gives his teammates a chance to make a better play.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st Quarter, 14:54

DeMarvin Leal (#98) is the edge defender to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers frequently adjust their fronts by moving the edge rusher into the middle, between the defensive line and linebackers. This is a frequent tactic the Steelers use to put T.J. Watt in different alignments to make him harder to defend against. DeMarvin Leal in Week 5 changed alignment like this three different times.

You can see Leal’s limitations in this role as he’s not nearly the athlete T.J. Watt is, but the Steelers trust Leal to execute the roles that T.J. Watt does, and while Leal is not going to do it as well as Watt, it says a lot about his intelligence and learning curve that he can line up all over the front seven and be trusted to know and fulfill his role, even if the splash plays are limited now, he isn’t far off.

The Point:

Being a rookie player selected in the third round, expectations for DeMarvin Leal have continued to grow each week. The fact that Steelers thought enough of Leal to have him active the very first game of the season and seeing significant defensive snaps was the first indication of what they feel about Leal as a player. With the Steelers continuing to diversify Leal’s involvement in the defense, it shows their trust in his abilities in the early portions of his career. To go from an interior defensive lineman, to a player lined up on the edge, to someone the Steelers feel confident enough to even have him roaming off the ball in the middle of the field, Leal’s versatility and ability to understand a variety of responsibilities is something the Steelers will likely continue to utilize as he grows as an NFL player in his rooki season.