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How much of an upgrade does Mason Cole give the Steelers at center?

The Steelers free agent center has been inserted into the starting lineup since Day 1, but what can fans expect this season?

Minnesota Vikings v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have finally reached 2022 training camp. As the team prepares for the 2022 season, there seems to be a lot of hope resting on new center Mason Cole, especially after 2021 starting center Kendrick Green made comments about not wanting to play the position. But does Cole provide enough of an upgrade to help improve an offensive line that struggled in 2021? 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:

As is usually the case, statistics are not the easiest thing to come by for offensive lineman. For Mason Cole, after being drafted in the third round of the 2018 draft by the Arizona Cardinals, he started all 16 games as a rookie and played every snap for the season at center and was the only player on the Cardinals to do so.

The biggest reason Cole started every game his rookie season was because the Cardinals lost A.Q. Shipley for the season when he tore his ACL in training camp. With the return of Shipley, Cole was allocated to a backup in 2019 where he started two games at guard and played 211 offensive snaps. In 2020, Cole was back as the starting center where he played 14 games after missing two early in the season and logged 914 offensive snaps.

During the 2021 offseason, the Cardinals traded Mason Cole to the Minnesota Vikings for a sixth-round draft pick. With Minnesota, Mason Cole started seven games in reserve duty from Week 9 to Week 15 before being placed on Injured Reserve for the final three games due to an elbow injury.

During the 2021 season, Mason Cole played 472 snaps and, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), gave up two sacks, both of which were in his final game of the season against the Chicago Bears and may have happened after his injury occurred. In his career, Cole has been charged with giving up seven sacks according to PFF.

When looking at his PFF grades, Mason Cole had an overall grade of 69.7 for 2021 which ranked him 13th of the 39 qualifying centers, 21 spots ahead of Steelers center Kendrick Green. Additionally, Cole had very low marks in his final game of the season, one of which he may have been attempting to play through injury, and it severely affected his scores. According to PFF, Mason Cole had his best game of the season in San Francisco in Week 12 where he had an 84.6 overall grade with an 85.9 run blocking score and 79.0 pass blocking score. His next best game was against the Steelers in Week 14 where Cole had an 82.8 overall score, an 83.9 run blocking score, and a 55.2 pass blocking score. On the 2021 season, Cole had a 75.2 run blocking score but only a 44.1 pass blocking score with a low score of 14.7 against the Green Bay Packers.

When looking at Mason Cole‘s overall PFF scores, his best marks in both overall grade and run blocking were in 2021. As for pass blocking, Mason Cole has had more of a struggle with three of his four seasons with scores in the 40 with the lone exception being 2019 where he scored a 63.3 in a season he only started two games.

All of this talk of snaps and scores show a little bit of the picture, but the film should bring some more clarity.

The Film Line:

Mason Cole played both guard and center in 2021, but we are going to focus primarily on his work at center. We’ll start with one of the ugliest reps he put on film all season.

Vikings vs. Packers, 3rd quarter, 0:08.

Mason Cole (#52) is the center.

Watch Cole’s feet on this play. He is getting driven back and doesn’t find his anchor. He is walked back into the pocket before being cast aside for the sack. This matchup with 2022 Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark was one of Cole’s worst games of the season. It also points to one of Mason Cole’s biggest weaknesses.

Vikings vs. 49ers, 1st quarter, 11:03.

Mason Cole (#52) is the center.

From the broadcast angle you can see how quickly Mason Cole is driven backwards on this play. Watch the ball at the snap, and the nose tackle across from Cole. The defender times up the snap and gets a good hit on Cole before he can set his stance after the snap.

Cole has a similar weakness to most centers in the NFL, when he’s facing a better defensive tackle lined up in a zero or 1-tech alignment (over the center or between the center and guard) he will often get driven backward. Cole gets in further trouble when he fails to recover and anchor after losing the first contact.

Compare those two clips to a play where he is facing a defender who isn’t lined up right on him.

Vikings vs. 49ers, 1st quarter, 14:23.

Mason Cole (#52) is the center.

On this play Cole has time to get into his stance and he does a great job absorbing the rush and anchoring. His quarterback has plenty of room to step up into the pocket.

One thing that shows up a lot when he is losing first contact is Cole getting to one side of the defender to steer them instead of just trying to stop their push.

Vikings vs. Packers, 4th quarter, 1:33.

Mason Cole (#52) is the center.

You can see Mason Cole trying his best to steer Kenny Clark to the side here. It doesn’t work great against Clark, but it is something that shows up a good bit. It isn’t the worst strategy when you have a mobile quarterback. If Kirk Cousins could have taken off to the left side of the screen, Cole’s block would be helpful.

Mason Cole isn’t a powerful blocker, and he doesn’t have the best anchor. To be fair, I did show clips from some of his worst games here. Cole was only credited with 2 sacks in 2021, and only 7 sacks across his 39 career starts. Dealing with powerful 0 and 1-techs is a weakness, just not one that shows up as much when Cole is facing average defensive tackles, and he has ways to compensate for it.

It is also important to note that Mason Cole’s strength isn’t in pass blocking, but in the run game, and specifically zone plays like split zone and outside zone.

Vikings vs. 49ers, 3rd quarter, 10:33.

Mason Cole (#52) is the center.

This isn’t an easy block. The combo block isn’t the best, but Mason Cole gets his man and slows him enough to keep his defender out of the run lane. The guard helping him fails to get off the block and find his man, so there’s little gain here, but this play shows how well Cole does on blocks where he has to slow a defender’s lateral movement.

Vikings vs. Bears, 1st quarter, 1:07.

Mason Cole (#52) is the right guard.

Here’s a clip of Mason Cole at right guard. On this play Cole keeps control of his defender, and his block is good enough to allow Dalvin Cook to run to either side of Cole. As the left tackle loses his block, Cook cuts back and still gains a good chunk of yards.

Mason Cole was added because he is a good fit in these zone runs, and the Steelers were desperate to improve the execution of these blocking schemes.

Vikings vs. 49ers, 1st quarter, 11:40.

Mason Cole (#52) is the center.

Mason Cole also does a great job on screen plays and misdirection plays. Here he is able to get wide quickly and find the right player to block to help secure a first down. The Steelers love athletic centers, and Mason Cole has the mobility to do the job the Steelers want.

The Point:

It is easy to fall in love with big, mauling lineman that move defenders out of the way, and it is easy to look at those first few clips and declare that Mason Cole is not that kind of player. But Mason Cole wasn’t signed by the Steelers to be a Kevin Dotson, he was signed to help the Steelers implement the scheme they want to run. He has the physical tools and experience to do just that. He will struggle against better defensive tackles lined up over him, and the Steelers will have to compensate for that. But if that is what it takes to get the run game and Matt Canada’s offense going, the Steelers will take that trade off.

When comparing Mason Cole to 2021 starting center, Kendrick Green, there are some of the same concerns, such as anchoring, fans saw last year. But with Mason Cole, the Steelers get more NFL experience and a player willing to play the center position, something Green has stated during training camp before backing off his remarks. With part of what makes a good center being able to diagnose a defense and communicate, hopefully this is an area, one which is difficult to critique, which will benefit the Steelers more in 2022.