clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What does Myles Jack bring to the Steelers’ defense?

The linebacker’s speed and IQ will generate head-turning plays, but there are areas to better.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say the Steelers have had one of the most hectic offseasons of any NFL team this cycle, let alone in Pittsburgh history.

From adding two new potential starting quarterbacks to a nascent general manager and defensive coordinator to several high-profile signings, the Steelers will field a team with black-and-gold newcomers across the board in 2022. One player who fits such criteria is Myles Jack.

When Jack was released by the Jaguars on March 15, the fit in Pittsburgh seemed obvious: Joe Schobert was a likely cut candidate, and Mike Tomlin could take a flier on a young yet veteran field general. The Steelers did just that by signing Jack to a two-year, $16 million deal a day later.

With an inescapable quarterback battle and more recent adds like defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, it can be easy to forget about Jack. However, the 26-year-old will play a significant role in Tomlin’s reconstituted defense, led by new DC Teryl Austin and senior defensive assistant Brian Flores.

The numbers seem to indicate Jack had a lackluster season in 2021: his 37.7 Pro Football Focus grade was the lowest of his career and was the fourth-worst of any ‘backer to play over 900 snaps. Further, the UCLA alum tallied zero takeaways after having one each of the last four years.

The film, however, suggests that Jack still brings talent to the Steelers via his physical attributes, football acuity and emotive play. At the same time, there are frustrating lapses that can emerge in coverage, play recognition and the run game.

Overall, what will Jack contribute to the Steelers’ defense for 2022, if not also 2023? Let’s take a more intricate look.

When watching Jack, it’s hard not to notice his speed and quickness. Whether in coverage or in pursuit, Jack can really turn on the jets.

On this first play, Jack stays step-for-step with Christian Kirk, and makes it look rather effortless. Jack didn’t formally run a 40-yard dash, but the fact he’s able to keep pace with Kirk’s 4.47 speed up the field — while not appearing to fully exert himself — is impressive.

It’s not just down-the-field speed with Jack (No. 44), though. Laterally, the linebacker demonstrates the ability to close gaps in a hurry, as he does here on a PA Boot by looking onto tight end Pharaoh Brown, neutralizing him.

Even when Jack is slow to react — more on that in a bit — his agility allows him to get right back into plays and make a tangible impact. On this read option, Jack takes a step or two to his right before planting his foot in the ground and charging toward Kyler Murray, forcing the quarterback out of bounds.

When Jack meshes his speed with his instincts and understanding of concepts, it really is a sight to behold.

In virtually every game I watched, Jack would make a splash play of sorts against the run, whether it be screaming downhill to stifle a snap or waiting patiently for the play to develop and then hitting the precise gap with expertise.

This run against Derrick Henry and the Titans is a prime example. As Tennessee runs an outside zone, Jack recognizes space in the A gap as center Ben Jones can’t get to the second level. From there, Jack detonates on fullback Khari Blasingame, blowing the play up.

What is even more refined about Jack’s run stoppage is the patience he exhibits before deciding to plow forward.

On this draw against Arizona, Jack engages with center Rodney Hudson; rather than motor straight ahead, Jack waits for James Conner to pick his spot, at which point Jack block-sheds and darts to get the stop.

Being able to find the correct gap to shoot and doing so at full speed in one fell swoop puts Jack in elite territory. His ability to acutely follow pullers and track the progression of the run without stopping is stellar, as he does here to Mark Ingram.

There’s something quite satisfying about watching Jack stand his ground, wait for blocking engagements to unfold and then explode toward the ball-carrier with an edge. This work on a Javonte Williams counter is perfect.

Even if Jack can’t sniff out a run in its infancy, he’s shrewd enough to tread water and fight through traffic, ranging sideline to sideline to make stops.

It’s not only in run prevention that Jack leverages his speed, however. In coverage, he boasts quickness with good ball skills and awareness.

If you’ve ever watched backpedal drills at the Combine and felt they had little translation to real game speed, this play reflects otherwise. Jack plays the hook curl by backpedaling, accelerating forward and then smoothly flipping his hips to take away DeAndre Hopkins. For a linebacker in particular, Jack has good change of direction.

This next play may have been the most eye-popping one from Jack that I had the chance to watch. The Colts run a 3x1 formation with an in-breaking route behind a slot fade. Playing the deep middle, Jack tracks the slot receiver the entire way, keeping up before getting his hands up to disrupt the play.

While less of a measurable trait, Jack truly plays with his heart on his sleeve, acting as if every down could be his last. As such, he is never afraid to hit hard — even if it’s Henry on the opposite of the line of scrimmage.

In particular, Jack can be a valuable asset in goal-line situations. His willingness to fly in and put his body on the line can be paramount in reinforcing stops, like he does here against Henry.

Moreover, Jack has a very high motor and never quits on a play. On this third down against the Broncos, Jack starts a legitimate 10 yards from the ball carrier; nevertheless, he gallops forward to prevent a new set of downs.

When a play may look over, Jack still puts himself in good position to back up potential miscues. After a missed tackle by Tyson Campbell on this quick out, Jack flaunts his range to make the play.

In a similar vein, Jack is always eager to join a dogpile of tacklers to truly bring a ball carrier to a halt. While Jack himself doesn’t entirely stop Tim Patrick on this snap, the desire to finish plays is admirable.

Jack’s competitive drive can manifest itself through outward expressions. This run up the middle prompts Jack to jaw with Tytus Howard well after the whistle.

It really feels like Jack hinges on every play, no matter the circumstance. If he makes a blunder or a big gain is surrendered, he’s not shy to express anger, such as by clapping or shaking his head.

Even though he’s a passionate player, Jack has generally avoided penalty. The linebacker was ejected for throwing a punch in 2019 but had just three flags thrown in 2021 and has one career unnecessary roughness infraction.

While 768 of Jack’s 917 snaps last season came in the box, 88 were along the defensive line. The Jags were not afraid to use Jack to rush the passer, and he showed capabilities of delivering as a rusher.

The main area in which Jack succeeded was getting hurries due to his speed, largely by charging the A gap. His quick-twitch ability can create major problems for offensive linemen; against the Seahawks, Jack splits the zone block to get pressure on Geno Smith, forcing a rushed throw.

Remember that physicality discussed earlier? It also shows up when Jack is blitzing. Lined up in the A again, Jack drives Chase Edmonds right back and gets good positioning with his outstretched hand to generate a poor throw from Murray.

Per PFF, Jack had a career-high 10 hurries in 2021, but they didn’t exactly come due to his outside pass-rushing repertoire. Jack typically defaults to a bull rush when lined up against tackles or unable to blow by O-linemen, but he lacks the power to generate push or separate.

Now that I’ve elucidated the areas in which Jack typically excels, it’s also important to zero in on some areas for improvement.

According to Pro Football Reference, Jack had a 3.6% missed tackle rate in 2021, which ranked second-lowest among inside linebackers to start 15+ games. At the same time, there were numerous instances in which Jack let playmakers get away.

The main reason why Jack experienced some struggles in tackling was due to poor positioning and leverage. Typically, Jack would try to corral ball carriers with just his arms.

Here, Jack follows Conner well out of the backfield and closes in after the catch is made. Yet rather than square off his hips and shoulders, Jack hesitates and then tries to grab Conner’s shoulder pads, which doesn’t go well.

A similar outcome unfolds on this run by Williams. Jack does a marvelous job getting outside to be in position to make a play, yet can’t space his feet well enough to get balance. Consequently, Williams ducks under the tackle for more yardage.

Where Jack does better in wrapping up offensive players is when he can utilize his full body. During this outside zone, Jack drives nicely to stop Samaje Perine. Notice how Jack shuffles and keeps his feet straight before transitioning to hitting Perine.

Alternatively, going in low does not seem to be a problem for Jack. Working as the backside edge in Houston, Jack careens down from behind for a combo tackle on Ingram.

Indeed, going for the legs will at least create a barrier for the runner, if not stop them altogether.

Another relatively worrisome element to Jack’s game was recognition of who actually had the ball. This concern reared its ugly head in both passes and runs.

Jack had one of his worst career games against the Bengals, and play action was the primary reason why.

C.J. Uzomah’s first touchdown came with the Jaguars in Cover 1 Robber with Jack in man coverage on Uzomah. After a fly motion, Jack bites hard on the fake run, leaving him too wide to get to Uzomah for a wide-open score.

Later in the game, the Bengals run a fake toss that gets Jack flat-footed and away from Tyler Boyd. Given that the Jaguars were in zone, this gap isn’t entirely on Jack — Campbell crept down from the flat, leaving Boyd more room — but Jack was spurned by the fake yet again.

Consider this snap against the Titans. Tennessee calls a read option in which Ryan Tannehill keeps the ball, but Jack has already engaged with the OL before realizing the QB still has it. Jack being deceived leaves a large hole in the Jags’ defense that Tannehill exploits.

Even though Jack is a smooth athlete and nimble for a linebacker, it felt like there were times where he’d be a step or two too slow in coverage this year.

On this play-action pass against Indy, Jack stares down Carson Wentz just a hair too long before realizing Jack Doyle is streaming free. Those precious seconds without Jack widening his coverage lead to a sizeable gain.

That wasn’t the only time Jack got beaten in coverage against the Colts. Playing the hook curl, Jack is initially in good position to cover Michael Pittman Jr. Then, Jack takes a few steps toward Mo Alie-Cox in the flat, leaving Pittman open. While not great coverage by Shaquill Griffin, the boundary corner, Jack needs to stay disciplined in his area of the field.

I mentioned Boyd earlier, and he gets the best of Jack yet again by creating just enough separation on a curl by driving his foot into the ground and forcing a stumble. This isn’t a bad play from Jack, per se, but it’s enough to lead to a completion.

Jack can definitely turn his hips well, but it’s not something that should be defaulted to in coverage, if at all avoidable. Playing over the middle of the field, Jack does a good job recognizing Uzomah coming over, but the linebacker spins too late to keep up with the speedy tight end. This is a nice throw from Burrow over Jack’s hand, but little things like that can add up.

Turning 27 in September, Jack brings phenomenal experience to the Steelers, having played in 88 games and three playoff contests, including catalyzing the Jaguars to a stunning win in Heinz Field in the 2018 AFC Divisional.

Despite the Jaguars’ woes, Jack was the heart and soul of their defense since his debut in 2016. In fact, Jack played at least 86% of defensive snaps for the Jags every year since 2017.

In the 15 games that Jack started in 2021, Jacksonville averaged 346.5 yards allowed per game; without Jack against the Dolphins (Week 6) and Jets (Week 16), the Jags surrendered 431 and 373 yards, respectively. Granted, JAX didn’t have Campbell in Week 6 or Allen in Week 16, but Jack’s absence was felt.

Jack is a freakish athlete whose speed should be employed in a multitude of facets by Flores, Austin and Tomlin. Lining him up to blitz from the A gap should be in play, and he even has the agility to suit up for some snaps in the slot.

The Steelers’ run defense was abnormally abysmal in 2021, primarily due to the absence of Tyson Alualu and the passive play of Devin Bush and Joe Schobert. Jack’s downhill presence and gap shrewdness should help ameliorate Pittsburgh’s run defense.

That being said, if Jack does not become more sound on play fakes, the Steelers’ inside linebacking corps could be in for some subpar reps in coverage yet again. Even with elite defenders like T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jack will be responsible for much of the middle of the field, and front- and back-level guys can only help so much if large vacancies emerge.

Another question will be whether Jack, Devin Bush or someone else wears the green dot. Jack had green dot duties revoked after Week 4 of last year; he feels he “could do it,” but it doesn’t necessarily seem that he wants to relay signals. While some have noted that Jack is worse while given an internal headset, I didn’t notice any significant difference in his play without it.

Although the play recognition is somewhat alarming, Jack’s tackling woes should be less apparent in a deep, talented defensive line, plus reinforcement from Fitzpatrick. Likewise, Jack should be in position to turn the tide in his takeaway numbers based on the sheer disruptiveness of the Steelers’ DL and its ball-hawking secondary.

While he may have a few blunders each game, Jack’s talent stands tall. A true every-down linebacker, Jack’s skill should spark several impact plays in every contest, and his impassioned spirit should make him a fan favorite.