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Is Chris Wormley the answer on the Steelers’ defensive line?

After being thrust into a starting role in 2021, where does Chris Wormley fit into the plans on the defensive line?

NFL: DEC 09 Steelers at Vikings

The Pittsburgh Steelers are chugging on through the 2022 offseason. Looking at a number of players and positions as the roster has fluctuated, sometimes it’s players the Steelers have on their roster taking a step that can really add to the coming season. While players who are in a starting role are important, so are those who serve as backups. Going into the 2022 season, it’s unclear at this time where defensive lineman Chris Wormley will fall on the depth chart. Is he up to the task to hold a starting position again? 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:

Note: A significant portion of this article was written before the announcement of Stephon Tuitt’s retirement.

Chris Wormley saw his best statistical season in 2021. Starting 14 games, Wormley had 7.0 sacks on the season, twice as many as his previous four seasons combined. In 2021, Wormley had 51 tackles, six of which were for loss, 10 quarterback hits, one forced fumble, and three passes defensed. According to Pro Football Reference, Wormley had four missed tackles on the season for a 7.3% missed tackle rate.

Part of the reason Wormley saw an increase in statistics was due to the large increase in snaps played. Logging 729 defensive snaps, Wormley only had 148 defensive snaps for the Steelers the previous year. His largest total of his career prior to 2021 was 448 defensive snaps with the Baltimore Ravens in 2019. In all, Wormley played 39.5% of his 1,846 career defensive snaps during the 2021 season.

When it comes to Pro Football Focus grades, Wormley had a 69.3 overall score in 2021 which ranked him 28 out of 109 interior defensive linemen currently on NFL rosters. Wormley had a higher score when it came to run defense for the season of 69.9 with only a 60.0 pass rushing score. Wormley’s strongest game came in Week 4 against the Green Bay Packers where we had a score of 90.3 overall. Wormley also saw scores in the 70s against the Seattle Seahawks, in Cincinnati, and the Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Wormley’s lowest scores on the season, which were under 50.0, were in Week 9 against Chicago and Week 18 in Baltimore.

Although the numbers are nice to know, whether or not Chris Wormley can be the answer for the Steelers on the defensive line will come more from checking out the film.

The Film Line:

Chris Wormley played the most snaps he’s ever played and statistically had his most productive season by far, but he was also a big part of the NFL’s worst run defense. Is Chris Wormley an asset or a problem? The film will let us know.

Steelers vs. Packers, 3rd quarter, 1:47.

Chris Wormley (#95) is lined up just left of the center.

Now that is a really good run defense rep. Wormley is following the play to his right, and when the back cuts inside, he sheds his block and makes the stop with his left arm. He then punches the ball out with his right. It resulted in a big turnover that gave the Steelers a chance to get back into the game before the 4th quarter. The offense didn’t do anything with it, but that doesn’t take away from this big play.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 8:04.

Chris Wormley (#95) is the defensive lineman to the right side of the line, to the left of T.J. Watt.

The problem is, too often Wormley ended up looking like this. You can see that he is trying to defend this run similarly to the one above. The problem is he gets driven too far into the middle, and is far too slow getting off the block to make an impact. Joe Schoebert also gets washed completely out of the play here. I’ve covered this game in multiple film rooms, and the third quarter domination by Seattle was largely based on Wormley and Schoebert being bullied in the run game.

While it wasn’t this bad every week, it was a problem all season.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 1st quarter, 13:51.

Chris Wormley (#95) is the defensive lineman to the right side of the line.

With a little help from a combo block Wormley isn’t just moved out of the run lane, he gets pushed into Montravius Adams and knocks him over.

By this point in the season lineman had learned to attack Wormley and instead of trying to control him, just drive him. Wormley can two-gap if you let him, but he isn’t going to anchor and hold ground if you attack him aggressively, and against a double team he is a serious liability.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 4th quarter, 7:29.

Isaiahh Loudermilk (#92) is the defensive lineman to the right side of the line.

Loudermilk isn’t as polished as Chris Wormley, and didn’t make splash plays like Wormley did in 2021, but look at the difference facing a very similar run play. Loudermilk slows the blocker to keep better position, because he keeps control of the inside of the block. That also lets him shed the block to the run side, instead of having to disengage and cut across the block.

It’s not easy to see, but if you compare the offensive lineman’s inside hand placement against Wormley two clips above this one and in this play against Loudermilk, you can see that Loudermilk controls the inside hand and keeps it off his chest on the play side. Against Wormley the lineman gets his hand on the outside of his chest pads and that gives the blocker much more control over Wormley.

It’s subtlety like that that wins physical matchups on the line of scrimmage. Loudermilk looks more physical and “nasty” because he does a better job of defending his chest from blockers.

While Wormley isn’t the guy you want anchoring the run defense inside, he still brings a good amount of value to the defense.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 2nd quarter, 4:09.

Chris Wormley (#95) is the defensive lineman to the right side of the line.

Chris Wormley is an athletic lineman. He may not win much with brute strength and technique, but here he runs with Alex Collins. So even with a good block on Devin Bush, this run play is dead because Wormley got off his block and ran the play down.

Wormley isn’t a good defender against power and inside zone runs when he’s being driven backwards, but against outside zone runs he’s a real strength as he’s able to use his athleticism instead of his power and hand fighting. It shows up in his pass rush as well.

Steelers @ Bengals, 1st quarter, 6:48.

Chris Wormley (#95) is lined up right across from the center.

Wormley uses his quick first step to win the outside shoulder of the center, and from there is able to drive through the block into the backfield. When Wormley can use quickness and athleticism to give himself a big advantage in a matchup, he’s going to do well.

Wormley recorded 7 sacks in 2021, almost every single one was either off a rush almost identical to this one or could be classified as a coverage sack.

The Point:

Chris Wormley is a really valuable lineman on plays where he can attack linemen one-on-one with his athleticism and quickness. When he’s defending against double teams or on plays where power and technique are more important, he’s not going to do as well.

The return of Tyson Alualu and development of Isaiahh Loudermilk as he enters his second year in the NFL should allow Chris Wormley to be used less in those situations and more on downs where he can thrive. When he was forced into a major role on the defense in 2021, opposing teams were able to exploit his weaknesses and focus their offense through power run attacks that were often directed at Wormley. The trick will be for the Steelers to get Wormley on the field in the right situations to build up his strengths.