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The Steelers draft another high-risk, high-reward player in DeMarvin Leal

DeMarvin Leal might not be your proto-typical defensive lineman, but he certainly is a high-risk, high-reward player.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Arkansas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2nd Round of the 2022 NFL Ddraft, the Steelers took wide receiver George Pickens from the University of Georgia, a player who would have been selected much higher had it not been for an injury and questions about his maturity. In Round 3, they doubled down on that formula, opting for Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal.

Like Pickens, Leal was once projected to go in Round 1 but fell because of questions about his maturity — he was arrested for marijuana possession — and a sense he didn’t always give great effort. Also, at 283 pounds, he was considered by many as a “tweener” without a natural fit in most NFL schemes.

On the other hand, Leal was a consensus All-American whose burst off the ball and great hand technique make him difficult to block one-on-one. There are shades of Devonte Wyatt in his game, and his ability to slant, twist and loop will allow the defensive coaching staff to get creative with how they use him. He will need to add weight to become an every-down player but his get-off could make him useful in certain packages right away.

Here’s a closer look at Leal, and at what makes him intriguing.

The 2021 Orange Bowl: Texas A&M vs. North Carolina

For this film room, I’m focusing on Leal’s game against North Carolina in the 2021 Orange Bowl. With the accusations that Leal can lack focus and take plays off, I thought evaluating him over the course of an entire contest would be more instructive than combing through highlight clips.

What I found was encouraging. Leal disappears at times, but when he does it’s more a product of bad technique than lack of effort. He doesn’t make any splash plays in this game — no sacks, forced fumbles or big hits that would make a highlight reel — but his presence is felt in other ways. You can see why the Steelers like him, and how, with time to develop under position coach Karl Dunbar, he could become a fixture on their defensive line.

Leal is No. 8 and is circled in most clips. He plays outside, at the 5-tech, in nearly all of them.

First, Leal (left edge) shows off one of his best traits — his arm extension. He uses his hands very well, in both his pass rush and to defend the run. Here, he wins inside on Carolina’s right tackle and uses his leverage advantage to jolt him backwards. Once the tackle is on his heels, Leal drives him into the lap of quarterback Sam Howell, forcing an incompletion:

Next, we see Leal against a read-option concept. Leal is such a good run defender that Carolina often tried to neutralize him by reading him. Read-options are frequently used against the opponent’s best or most aggressive defender. Rather than block him, offenses try to make him wrong no matter how he reacts.

Here, Carolina runs inside zone to the right while Howell reads Leal, who is the edge to his left. If Leal sits back, Howell will give the football. If Leal pursues, Howell will pull it and run. Leal plays this well by muddying Howell’s read. He doesn’t commit one way or the other. Instead, he stays square and shuffles down the line, making it difficult for Howell to decide whether to give the ball or pull it. With the alley player coming, too, Howell makes the safe play and gives the ball to the back. Leal still manages to pursue the play and make the tackle for a short gain:

(Side note — Carolina had a 2nd level RPO built into this play, too, with the slot receiver running an out-cut. If Howell had pulled the football, he could have either run it or thrown the out, depending on the reaction of the alley defender. The blitz from A&M forced him to give the ball, making the second read moot. Still, this play shows how intricate read-options have become, and makes me wonder how far Matt Canada will take them with the Pittsburgh offense.)

In this next clip, we see another example of how well Leal neutralizes blockers with his hands. He’s on the back side of a GT Counter by Carolina — “GT” means the guard and tackle are pulling — and the H-back is tasked with cutting off Leal. Leal is too strong, though. He stands the H-back up with a good strike to the chest, then plays off him to make the tackle:

On the next play, Carolina runs at Leal. They again assign the H-back to him, and the result is the same. Leal is simply too strong to block with anyone other than a lineman:

Next, Leal, who to this point had used bull and speed rushes to pressure Howell, changes things up with an up-and-under move. His second step is hard to the outside, which gets the offensive tackle leaning that way. Leal then redirects across his face. He has the tackle beat, until the guard grabs Leal, drawing a holding penalty. This is a nice counter move by Leal that showcases his pass rush repertoire:

In the second half, A&M began to twist and stunt. On this play, Leal, who is the edge to the right of the front, comes inside on a gap exchange with the tackle. Carolina’s guard and tackle do a nice job trading off and picking up the stunt. But Leal uses a nice rip move to drive the guard into the A-gap. When he can’t beat the guard inside, he spins back out, showing good tenacity:

In Pittsburgh, a stunt like this would likely be paired with a cross-fire from the opposite backer. Rather than have him fall into coverage, the backer would blow the B-gap between the guard and tackle where the gap-exchange creates a seam. A player like Leal, who can move quickly and displace offensive linemen, can be useful in these schemes.

Next, we see one of the weaker plays from Leal in this contest. He is pinching from the left end into the B-gap, where he winds up one-on-one against the guard. It’s a full slant from A&M’s line, with an alley blitz from the left edge, so Leal doesn’t have containment. He’s free to use whatever move he can to beat the guard. Leal tries to bull rush him at first but can’t get movement. Then he tries to throw the guard off of him but the guard won’t budge. At this point Leal is stuck, and winds up dancing with the guard until Howell makes his throw:

This is a good example of how a pass rusher must be able to adjust his plan even as a play is unfolding. This is an issue where spending time with Coach Dunbar, and being around a veteran like Cam Heyward, can benefit Leal.

Later in this same drive, we see Leal make one of his best moves of the night. Watch him execute a textbook club-and-rip to beat Carolina’s left tackle and pressure Howell. Something you hear pundits discuss at length when analyzing pass rushers is the term “bend,” which refers to how well a player can redirect towards the quarterback once he clears a blocker. Leal bends extremely well here, showing expert agility for a big man:

Next, we see him again use his hands to defeat a block and make a tackle on an inside run. He was tremendous against the run in this game, winning every encounter against Carolina’s H-back and most against offensive tackles.

In this final clip, near the end of the game, with Carolina trailing and in hurry-up mode, Leal has free reign to rush the quarterback. Look at this beautiful up-and-under move to beat the tackle. A&M is falling back into eight-man coverage, so there is no one to contain Howell as he scrambles out of the pocket. But, in a more structured pass rush scheme, this would be a wicked move by Leal:

How Leal may be used with the Steelers

Leal is a great candidate to play the 4i technique in Pittsburgh’s “Tite” front, a scheme the Steelers used at times last year but which Brian Flores employed frequently in Miami. It’s a scheme I’d expect the Steelers to use more often in 2022.

The Tite front would put Leal on the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle, where he would be a penetrator. Put simply, his job would be to get into the backfield through the B-gap. The Tite front is great for players like Leal, who aren’t necessarily old-school two-gap run stuffers like Casey Hampton but are quick and athletic and can disrupt blocking schemes with their get-off.

Leal may also bump outside at times to play the 5-tech, like we saw him do in the film clips above. I was speaking with BTSC writer Shannon White about Leal, and Shannon mentioned a scout he respects who believes Leal is similar to LaMarr Woodley. Leal does not possess Woodley’s lateral movement and would struggle in coverage. But, as you saw in the clips above, he looks a bit like Woodley when he’s in a two-point stance, and he can certainly rush the passer. The Steelers may use him situationally to do just that.

They could also use him in pressure packages like the one below, where his quickness could be effective. This is one of Flores’s schemes in Miami, where eight defenders are stacked at the line in an attempt to confuse the offense about who is coming and who is dropping.

The player circled is Christian Wilkins, an athletic defensive tackle like Leal. He’s lined up on the inside shoulder of the guard in an “amoeba” look:

At the snap, Wilkins bluffs a pass rush then drops, taking away the quarterback’s hot read in the middle of the field. The stunt creates confusion up front, and Miami gets home for a sack. Leal is a good candidate to play the Wilkins role in movement-based fronts like these.

In short — the Steelers have options with Leal, and time to find him a proper role.

It was an atypical draft for the Steelers. Pittsburgh often opts for safer choices in the higher rounds, like Najee Harris and T.J. Watt. In Pickens and Leal, they gambled on themselves, betting they’ll be able to minimize the distractions and maximize the high upside. Time will tell if the Steelers were right to take the risk. But, if they are, they’ll have landed two of the best talents in the draft.