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James Daniels’ rough first game for the Pittsburgh Steelers

In the first preseason game for the Steelers new offensive line, there were plenty of kinks to work out.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The status of being the Steelers biggest free agent acquisition of the season brings a lot of pressure along with it. If you happen to also be an offensive lineman joining a franchise looking to quickly rebound from a year of messy offensive line play, that adds to it. James Daniels not only fits both of those qualifications, he also has been praised by coaches and teammates for his leadership in the offensive line room. Expectations were not low.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 13:07

James Daniels (#78) is the right guard.

That’s not a good start. James Daniels gets his quarterback hit here, but it’s not too hard to see why, you just need to look at a few things first.

First, check out Anthony McFarland. McFarland is blocking and he quickly gets to the front of the pocket and then blocks the first rusher that comes to the middle. We talked about this a few weeks ago in the Vertex on Jeremy McNichols, this is Pat Myers more aggressive pass blocking in action. The backs will not be sitting back looking to find a person to block, they will have simpler, and more aggressive, protection roles.

This change, in my opinion, is geared to helping Najee Harris be a better pass protector, something he struggled with in his rookie season. Making the job simpler will help. But it passes some of the difficulty on to the offensive line, and we see that here.

The second key to the failure here is the rusher that starts this snap off the screen to the right. The Seahawks are threatening with 6 rushers, and they bring 5 of them.

Really quick, from the left, Dan Moore Jr. has the rusher off screen to the left, Kendrick Green has the defensive lineman to the left. Mason Cole has the linebacker to the left (#51). Now on the right side Chukwuma Okorafor has the rusher offscreen to the right, Daniels the defensive lineman, and Anthony McFarland, in Pat Meyer’s system would have #57. Six blockers on six potential rushers.

The problem here is #57 is running a stunt with the defensive lineman #77. James Daniels is locked onto his man and completely misses the threat of the stunt. Once #77 heads inside, Anthony McFarland rightly picks him up, leaving James Daniels trying to block the linebacker that he is in terrible position to block.

This is a case of Daniels locking onto his pre-snap read and getting caught in bad position when that read is altered post-snap. This is frankly a dumb mistake. This is a mistake that hasn’t showed up consistently for James Daniels, a man who PFF credits with giving up only 4 sacks in over 2,000 pass blocking snaps so far in his career.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 8:53

James Daniels (#78) is the right guard, second from the bottom on the line.

Here’s another Pat Meyer move. Daniels comes forward at the snap to meet his man instead of stepping backward. Daniels gets driven back, but his quarterback has time to run the play-action fake and progress through reads to find Connor Heyward. You’d like to see him find his anchor here, but he still buys plenty of time, so it isn’t a big deal.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 6:13

James Daniels (#78) is the right guard, second from the bottom on the line.

Another whiff, another hit on Mitchell Trubisky. So what happened this time? It’s the same problem as the first clip, Daniels locks onto his pre-snap read, and doesn’t adjust post-snap.

You can see the problem clearly when you slow it down.

Watch the helmets of center Mason Cole and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. They are both looking to the right, reading the rush, seeing the cornerback adding onto the rush and they both adjust their targets, with Okorafor letting #52 run right past him.

In contrast, James Daniels is locked onto #77, he isn’t reading the rush, doesn’t see the corner add onto the rush and doesn’t adjust until it is too late. These are awful, embarrassing mistakes for a veteran lineman to make. You have to assume it won’t be like this again. Because you don’t last three years in the NFL if you can’t do better than this, and James Daniels hasn’t just lasted, he’s been a good starting lineman.

He would put better pass protection plays on tape after this.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 5:33

James Daniels (#78) is the right guard, second from the bottom on the line.

Daniels and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor do a pretty good job on this stunt, but with Trubisky climbing the pocket, the defender Daniels is responsible for gets a hit on Trubisky’s arm to mess up the throw. You can also see Jaylen Warren stepping up quick to block anyone rushing the middle of the pocket, and then turning into a receiver when no one is there. We should expect to see this a lot in the Steelers 2022 offense, and when Najee Harris plays next, it will be something to watch and see how he does.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 3:11

James Daniels (#78) is the right guard, second from the bottom of the line.

This is a good job by Daniels to fight off two defenders coming right at him. The defensive end (#98) comes right at him to interfere with his block on #97, but he’s able to navigate it and with help from center Mason Cole, they shut down that threat entirely. Kendrick Green does a good job holding the front of the pocket, and while it looks like Dan Moore Jr. gets beat on the arc, look at Mason Rudolph’s feet and the pocket he has.

I don’t want to pile on Rudolph, he didn’t have a bad game, but he shares some blame for this play for just sitting back 8 yards deep instead of taking a step up into the pocket. Compare this play to the one directly above it, where Trubisky moves forward before throwing the ball. I’d argue Dan Moore Jr. does a good job driving his defender deeper on his arc. #53 is ten yards behind the line of scrimmage. That’s not bad blocking.

In pass protection the Steelers first string offensive line had some struggles, but I’m going to give them a bit of a pass for this game. I expect James Daniels to bounce back from this game, because if he doesn’t, I can’t imagine him being in the NFL very long. You can’t give up free hits on your quarterback to basic pass rush schemes.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 8:15

James Daniels (#78) is the right guard, second from the bottom on the line.

One of the big reasons Mason Cole and James Daniels were signed was to help the Steelers with their outside zone run game. Daniels shows off why on this play when he reaches Poona Ford, a three year starter at nose tackle, and wins the block. Kevin Rader misses his man, and McFarland has to shake the linebacker before he can gain yards, but the offensive linemen all do a good job on this play.

Steelers v Seahawks, 1st quarter, 2:27

James Daniels (#78) is the right guard, second from the bottom on the line.

The offensive line do a good job on this inside zone run as well. Daniels does a great job making sure Chukwuma Okorafor has the defensive tackle secured and then he shoots up to the second level to take out a linebacker. Daniels stands out here for how quickly he gets to the linebacker after peeling off the double team block.

James Daniels is a leader on this offensive line, and while his struggles in this game are inexcusable for a veteran in his fifth season, I can’t believe it will be an ongoing problem for him as the season progresses. As long as he can fix whatever caused his lapses in focus in this game, he has the ability to be a great addition to the Steelers offensive line. If not I can’t imagine he’s starting very many games this season.