The Pittsburgh Steelers signed former Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi to a one-year contract on Tuesday, adding a starting-quality player to a unit that was short on proven veterans after the recent retirement of Stephon Tuitt.
Ogunjobi was a 3rd Round draft pick by Cleveland in 2017. He played four seasons there, starting 46 games over his final three years. In 2019, Ogunjobi was involved in the infamous fracas with Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph during which Browns defensive end Myles Garrett clobbered Rudolph with his helmet. Ogunjobi shoved Rudolph to the ground during the altercation, earning a one-game suspension for his actions. In 2021, he signed a one-year deal to play in Cincinnati. Ogunjobi started all 17 games with the Bengals, recording 49 tackles and 7 sacks. He injured his foot during the post-season, causing him to miss most of Cincinnati’s Super Bowl run. The Steelers were confident enough in Ogunjobi’s health to sign him. In Pittsburgh, he will compete for reps along a defensive line that now appears deep with both prospects and proven talents.
There’s a lot to like about Ogunjobi. but before we get to that, let’s address his biggest potential red flag — the injury. Ogunjobi initially sign a 3-year, $40 million contract with Chicago in the early days of free agency in March. He failed his physical, though, which negated the deal. His agreement with the Bears came only three months removed from his injury, so it’s quite possible he was not fully healed when he took his physical in Chicago. With three additional months, he obviously appeared healthier when the Steelers evaluated him. The hope is that Ogunjobi will continue to rehabilitate over the next month before he reports to training camp, and that he will be unhindered by the injury come September.
At age 28, Ogunjobi is young enough that his body should heal fairly quickly. Still, he’s a large man (6’3-310), and foot injuries can be problematic with all of that weight to bear. A player’s best “ability” is his availability, and the Steelers just went through a season where two of their three best defensive linemen were mostly unavailable. It’s understandable, then, to have concerns about Ogunjobi and to cross your fingers and hope for the best.
That said, the player the Steelers have acquired is a very good NFL defensive tackle. He’s not a superstar, but he’s the kind of player who makes life easier on superstars. Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt should be as excited as anyone in the organization with this signing. At worst, Ogunjobi will push Tyson Alualu for reps as the 1-tech tackle in Pittsburgh’s base 3-4 and as the lineman opposite Heyward in their 2-4-5 and 2-3-6 sub packages. If Alualu gets injured again or if his play falls off, Ogunjobi will step in seamlessly. He’s not a pure 1-tech the way Alualu is, but he’s better suited to play there than anyone else on the roster.
At best, the Steelers will be able to scheme him to free up Heyward. He’s an excellent penetrator, which disrupts blocking schemes and forces double teams. With all the slants and line stunts Brian Flores likes to run, I can see Ogunjobi aligning as a 2i or 3-tech and coming hard into the A-gap, drawing a double team from the center and guard and subsequently leaving Heyward one-on-one on the other side of the ball. In the passing game, Ogunjobi has an excellent get-off and is adept at pushing the pocket, thereby creating better opportunities on the edge for Watt. Like Alualu, Ogunjobi’s value may not be revealed in his own statistics but in what he’s able to do for his teammates.
Here’s some video that demonstrates these qualities in Ogunjobi’s play. First, we see him lined up on the nose last season against Kendrick Green and the Steelers. You can see his burst at the snap and his active hands. The ball comes out in typically quick Ben Roethlisberger fashion, but against a quarterback looking to hang in the pocket longer to throw a deeper developing route, this type of push would prohibit him from stepping up and away from the edge rush. That creates opportunities for Watt, who is deadly when he has a target confined to the pocket.
Here’s an example of just that. Against Minnesota, quarterback Kirk Cousins is looking to push the ball downfield to an in-cut breaking to his right. He has to hold the ball as the route progresses. This allows Ogunjobi, who is aligned on the nose, to drive the center into Cousins’ lap. Cousins can’t step up as a result, and the rush eventually converges on him:
If you watch that clip again, look at Cincinnati’s edge rushers. Neither does a bad job, but both stay blocked long enough for Cousins to find a receiver. The pressure in his face from Ogunjobi prevents that from happening. Now picture one of those edge rushers is T.J. Watt. There’s no question Watt would have gotten to Cousins faster than either player here. If Ogunjobi can create this sort of push as a pass rusher, Watt is going to benefit tremendously.
Against the run, Ogunjobi can be similarly disruptive. Here’s another clip from the contest against the Steelers. Ogunjobi has kicked over to align as a 2i on the inside shoulder of left guard Kevin Dotson (69). He will execute a slant like the ones I was referencing above when discussing how Flores moves his linemen. Ogunjobi starts in the left A-gap and rips across Green’s face into the right A-gap, forcing right guard Trai Turner to pick him up. Turner’s assignment on this play — it’s a Power RPO where Roethlisberger can hand the ball to Najee Harris or throw a quick route to his slot receiver — is to block the backside linebacker. Turner can’t get there because he’s forced to pick up Ogunjobi. Had Roethlisberger handed off to Harris, the backside backer would have run unblocked to the football. This is the hidden value a player like Ogunjobi provides. He can impact a play even if he’s not making it himself.
Ogunjobi’s quickness can make him difficult to block on the back side of plays. In the next clip, Ogunjobi is aligned as the 3-tech to the left of Minnesota’s offensive formation. He is circled in the photo below:
This is a wide zone run to the right. Minnesota’s left tackle will have the task of cutting off Ogunjobi to keep him from pursuing the play. The lead-in on this clip isn’t great, but focus on Ogunjobi’s mechanics. He quickly diagnoses the run action, gets his feet moving laterally and expertly uses his right arm to create separation from the tackle so he can’t be held (every offensive lineman at every level of football holds on backside cut-off blocks, and only the most egregious ones are called). Ogunjobi finishes the play with a good hit on running back Dalvin Cook:
This is a play Steelers’ fans grew accustomed to seeing from Tuitt. It’s easy to recognize shades of Tuitt in Ogunjobi at times. I’m not suggesting Ogunjobi is a player on Tuitt’s level. But there are similarities, more so than with any defensive lineman on Pittsburgh’s roster.
Ogunjobi’s quickness doesn’t just show up on the backside of plays. Here, circled in the photo again, he’s aligned as a 2i on the left of the defensive front:
Minnesota runs a split-zone concept right at Ogunjobi. It goes nowhere, because he dips inside the guard, beats the center and is into the backfield just as Cook receives the handoff:
Again, this is a play Steelers’ fans have seen Tuitt make. Ogunjobi is a disruptor, and will fit well in the movement-based scheme I expect the Steelers to implement.
Ogunjobi’s biggest weakness is that he’s never been a guy who can play 70 or 80% of the snaps in a given contest. He has lapses where he disappears, and if he’s forced to play a steady diet of snaps on the nose, he can wear down. Fortunately, Pittsburgh will not need him to play anywhere near that often. I anticipate Ogunjobi will split reps at nose with Alualu depending on the situation. Alualu will be there in the base 3-4 in run situations, while Ogunjobi may spell him when the Steelers want to stunt the line or create penetration. Ideally, they’d love Alualu on the field against inside zone concepts and Ogunjobi out there when teams pull their guards or run the wide zone play. The odds are slim that opposing offenses will volunteer that information ahead of time, so the Steelers will have to substitute smartly.
Ogunjobi can also play some 5-tech in the base 3-4 alongside Heyward and Alualu, where he will probably take reps from Chris Wormley. He should also see time in the nickel package due to his ability as an interior pass rusher. There will be plenty of opportunities for the proven veteran while some of the younger players in his unit, like Isaiahh Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal, mature.
Ogunjobi’s presence on the roster does create an interesting situation for those other players. The Steelers are likely to carry seven defensive linemen on the active roster. Heyward, Alualu and Ogunjobi, assuming there are no setbacks with his foot, are locks. That leaves four spots among the remaining group of Loudermilk, Leal, Wormley, Montravious Adams, Henry Mondeaux, Daniel Archibong, Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis. Loudermilk, Leal, Wormley and Adams seem like the favorites to lock down those spots. But it will create an intense camp battle, making defensive line one of the most interesting position groups to watch this summer.
The Ogunjobi signing is another is a string of smart free agent acquisitions the Steelers have made this off-season. It’s been an exciting one in that regard, as Pittsburgh has meticulously addressed needs at almost every position group on the roster. Whether these moves pay dividends remains to be seen. But the Steelers have proven they don’t view their first season in the post-Roethlisberger era as a wasted one. They believe they can win, and they’re doing everything they can to make it happen.