Steelers’ fans were excited last off-season when Adrian Klemm, who had been hired to replace Shawn Sarrett as the team’s offensive line coach, told anyone who would listen how he intended to transform the unit into a nasty, physical bunch. That was music to the ears of a fanbase who had watched the line age and grow softer in recent seasons. The thought of a power rushing attack imposing its will upon the opposition conjured memories of the glory days for the Black and Gold.
Unfortunately, Klemm could not fulfill those promises. His unit was young, it suffered a number of injuries, and it was short on talent. Those limitations often led to the men up front getting whipped at the point of attack. A lack of physicality again resulted in an ineffective run game.
That’s only part of the story, however. The team’s woes up front weren’t solely the result of being overpowered. A propensity for missed or poorly executed assignments was also to blame. These mistakes took many forms. Bad technique, failures to get off of first-level blocks and engage linebackers, poor communication, lack of situational awareness. They generated dozens of dead plays that inevitably killed drives.
Part of the onus for these mistakes falls on the players themselves. It’s their job to execute. Joe Haeg, J.C. Hassenauer and John Leglue were backup-caliber players who took far too many reps. Kendrick Green, the rookie center, was thrust into a situation for which he wasn’t prepared. Put bluntly, they weren’t good enough up front. The talent must improve.
But the confusion, poor technique and communication issues that marred their play suggests something beyond ability. The unit was not well-coached. Pittsburgh can bring in a slew of Pro Bowl linemen, but if they’re not better prepared than the 2021 group, problems will persist. Coaching matters at all levels of football. In the NFL, where games are won and lost on the finest of details, it matters exceptionally.
The game that most caught my attention was the regular season contest in Week 16 at Kansas City. This was Klemm’s final game as line coach before he announced he was leaving at season’s end for the University of Oregon, after which Mike Tomlin quickly relieved him of further duties. Based on the way the line played that day, Klemm seemed to have one foot out the door. The Steelers were unprepared for much of what Kansas City threw at them, and the result was embarrassing.
The problems began on Pittsburgh’s first snap from center. They ran a toss sweep, one of the few times all season they tried to threaten the edge with the tailback. Slot receiver Ray Ray McCloud was responsible for cracking the edge player. McCloud could not prevent penetration, though, and the edge crashed into pulling tackle Chuks Okorafor. Okorafor was supposed to wrap up to block the play-side linebacker. When he couldn’t get there, the backer came free to run Najee Harris out of bounds for a two-yard loss:
Fault Matt Canada here. Why, if a receiver is to crack the edge, ask McCloud to do so? Why not ask a bigger player, like Chase Claypool, or a stronger one, like James Washington, to make this block? The failure of this play began with Canada giving McCloud an assignment he was not suited to complete.
If we zoom in on the line, however, we see another problem. The footwork of the guards hampered their ability to execute properly. Both Trai Turner and John Leglue needed to reach the outside shoulder of the defenders to their right. To do so, they needed to step laterally. Neither did. Their steps were too small, putting nether in position to attack the outside shoulder. Both defenders played off of their blocks easily, allowing them to pursue the play:
Two plays later, a combination of bad technique and a poorly executed assignment undid another rushing attempt. This was a mid-zone run. Watch Green at center. Green’s responsibility was to chip the 1-tech to his right until Turner could take him over, then climb to block the linebacker. The 1-tech back-doored the play, though, and Green, who had too much weight forward as he rolled out of his stance, could not adjust. He lunged forward and fell to his knees:
With Green whiffing on the block, Turner could not control the 1-tech. Both he and the play-side backer, who went unblocked as Green collapsed, clogged the point of attack. Meanwhile, on the backside, Okorafor failed to execute his responsibility. He stayed on his double-team with Zach Gentry and never climbed to the backside backer. This allowed the backer to fill the cutback lane that should have opened for Harris.
Here’s one more example. This was a simple inside zone run where everyone was assigned the gap to their left. Linemen would work up through their gap and block the first defender who showed. Uncovered linemen, meaning those who did not have a down lineman in their gap, would double-team the back-side defender until their gap was threatened:
On the left side of the football, Green and Leglue faced a gap-exchange stunt. The 3-tech on Leglue’s left shoulder spiked inside, across Leglue’s face, while the backer worked over top of him. A cardinal rule on inside zone is that offensive linemen cannot chase stunts. It’s a track-blocking scheme, not a man scheme. So, Leglue should have stabbed at the pinching 3-tech then passed him off to Green, who had A-gap responsibility. Leglue, then, would pick up the backer, who was filling the B-gap:
This is not what happened. Leglue attempted to stay with the 3-tech but missed on him badly. Green, meanwhile, chased the backer. The penetration from the 3-tech forced running back Benny Snell to bounce outside. This caused the defense to pursue Snell to the boundary, and Green wound up holding the backer to stop his pursuit. The ensuing penalty nullified Snell’s run:
This play is instructive for several reasons. First, it shows the importance of communication up front. More than any position group, the offensive line must work collectively. With Moore and Leglue not communicating properly on the stunt, the play was disrupted. Too often last season, these types of breakdowns emerged.
The second thing we see from this clip is the movement of Kansas City’s front. Because opposing teams noticed the inability of Pittsburgh’s line to execute well against stems, slants and stunts, they became increasingly active. That was on Klemm. It was his job to have the unit prepared to handle these types of movements. Klemm was dealt a bad hand from the standpoint of talent and experience, and the injuries certainly disrupted chemistry. But his failure to get them to execute better as the year progressed was as disappointing as his failure to have them play more physically.
In Klemm’s place, the Steelers have hired Pat Meyer, who was the line coach and run-game coordinator in Carolina the past two seasons. Meyer has had mixed results as a position coach in the league. In Los Angeles, with the Chargers, his unit finished 5th in the NFL in rushing in 2017 and yielded the fewest sacks in the league in 2018. In 2019, with a Melvin Gordon/Austin Ekeler tandem at running back and a young, no-name offensive line, they fell to 28th in rushing, prompting Meyer’s exit.
He landed in Carolina, where the environment resembled a M*A*S*H unit. Star running back Christian McCaffrey was injured for most of Meyer’s two seasons there, and in 2021 the Panthers did not have a single offensive lineman start more than 10 games due to injuries and Covid issues. The circumstances were not ideal.
So, is Meyer a coach whose units have struggled at times because of injuries and a lack of star power? Or is he simply a coach who produces mediocre results? Time will tell. However, after watching film of Carolina’s offense in games against Atlanta and Buffalo last season, I came away cautiously optimistic.
The Panthers finished 20th in rushing in 2021, but in these two games, in which they rushed for 242 total yards, their line play was encouraging. They were technically sound and executed the scheme well. Plays like the one below showed evidence of a better surge than we commonly saw from the line in Pittsburgh. Watch how square the center stayed as he attacked the shade to his right before chipping off to pick up the blitzing linebacker. And look at the technique of the right guard as he took over the shade and buried him. Low pads and active feet resulted in a dominant block:
On the other hand, their pass protection was not as good. This was particularly true in the Buffalo game, where they gave up four sacks. Here, the Bills got to quarterback Cam Newton with a pair of twist stunts. Carolina traded off on the twist to the right side of their line and picked it up. The center and left guard, however, stayed big-on-big (a man-scheme), and were unable to block it successfully. This type of breakdown is something we’ve seen too much of in Pittsburgh recently. For the line to improve, Meyer will have to work diligently on communication.
The fact that Carolina’s line was better in run blocking than in pass blocking makes sense, considering Meyer was the run-game coordinator. It also bodes well for the Steelers, given how badly they need to improve as a run-blocking unit. On the flip side, the 52 sacks Carolina yielded was 5th-worst in the league. If the Steelers are to evolve their passing game beyond last season’s dink-and-dunk attack, they will have to keep whomever is taking snaps upright.
Meyer was not a popular choice when he was announced as Klemm’s replacement. Many fans pined for a more recognizable name, like Mike Munchak or Tom Cable. Meyer will be Pittsburgh’s fourth line coach since Munchak departed in 2018. The play of the unit has diminished significantly in that time. The Steelers must make a serious investment in personnel, through both free agency and the draft, to acquire the resources necessary for improvement. Once they do, Meyer will need to focus on fundamentals and execution to craft a better unit than his predecessor.