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What is the best way for the Steelers to utilize Breiden Fehoko?

Have the Steelers found the type of nose tackle many have been looking for?

NFC: Chargers vs Titans

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is well underway. In the latest round of signings, the Steelers added another none tackle. But what is the best way for the Steelers to potentially utilize Breiden Fehoko? 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:

There are not a lot of numbers to discuss when it comes to Breiden Fehoko as he is a player who was on and off the practice squad and plays a position where numbers don’t always come easy. At nose tackle, many times those players are simply there to take up blockers and let others get the job done.

After being undrafted in the 2020 NFL draft out of LSU, Fehoko signed with the Los Angeles Chargers. Landing on the practice squad, Fehoko was elevated for two games where he played 19 defensive snaps his first season and didn’t register any statistics. In 2021, Fehoko was back on the practice squad where he was elevated twice in Week 4 and Week 6 before being signed to the active roster and getting his first career start against the Steelers in Week 11. Playing 34 defensive snaps, Fehoko got his first NFL stats where he had three tackles in the game. For all 2021, Fehoko appeared in eight total games with only the one start and had 13 tackles.

For the 2022 season Fehoko once again started the season on the practice squad until he was signed to the 53-man roster for Week 10. During this season, Fehoko played regularly the rest of the way as he logged at least 25 defensive snaps in every game the rest of the season. With three games officially credited as starts, Fehoko finished the year with 23 tackles.

After not being tendered as a restricted free agent, Fehoko signed with the Steelers for a one-year deal with the financials yet to be disclosed.

After giving the best I can when it comes to the numbers, now let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

Breiden Fehoko is a nose tackle. Not exclusively a nose tackle as he can play any interior defensive line role, but he sees the same kind of alignments by snap that the Steelers nose tackles play every season. Because of that, run defense is the primary focus of this evaluation. So before we get into it, let’s cover the other side, the pass rush.

Breiden Fehoko (#96) is the defensive tackle to the right of the center on screen.

This is a good representation of what Breiden Fehoko shows in pass rush. It isn’t much. Every single other rusher gets through to pressure the quarterback, but Fehoko not only doesn’t provide any pressure, he doesn’t even contain the quarterback. He’s just taking up space.

Breiden Fehoko (#96) is the defensive tackle in the middle of the line, right across from the center.

Breiden Fehoko is a big man who isn’t quick. He frequently loses first contact on plays like this, and in this instance it takes him out of the play. Not a good look for a nose tackle.

Breiden Fehoko (#96) is the defensive tackle to the left of the center on screen.

Another loss on first contact, but this also shows another common trend with Fehoko, as he recovers and gets back in on the play to hold this run to a 2-yard gain. Fehoko doesn’t have much quickness or explosiveness, but he has a ton of strength and he fights back well when he loses first contact. Watching this play closely you can see his hands are fighting to get into position, and once they do he takes control and dominates the block.

Breiden Fehoko (#96) is the nose tackle in the middle of the screen.

On this play Breiden Fehoko takes control of the left arm of the center and drives him out in front of him, completely destroying the run lane. If you watch the right side of the offensive line, Tennessee’s combo block on the defensive end creates a huge lane, and takes care of the inside linebacker. The edge defender holds the edge, and Breiden Fehoko closes that hole by pushing the center into it.

Breiden Fehoko (#96) is the defensive tackle to the right of the center on screen.

Again Fehoko controls the left arm of the center and drives him into the run lane. Christian McCaffrey sees this and cuts back, and you can see the amount of space Fehoko is shutting down in this image from the play

Driving the center further outside shut down that lane. Here he gets an arm out and is forcing McCaffrey back into the middle of the play. This is devastating to run plays like this that have the runner read from outside in. When the edge holds his ground, Breiden Fehoko can shut down from that edge to the middle of the line. He does this quite often. Any lateral-moving run game that tries to block Fehoko one-on-one is going to be in huge trouble, and that’s fantastic news for every other player on the Steelers defense.

But his dominance of lateral-moving blocking doesn’t end with just shoving the center outside.

Breiden Fehoko (#96) is the nose tackle lined up just left of the center on screen.

Fehoko does a great job dispatching the center and making the tackle on Derrick Henry. Check out the play he makes slowed down a bit.

Breiden Fehoko gets a grip on the center’s shoulder pad to lift him up and out of the way as he avoids getting tripped up by the traffic. This is one of my favorite plays by him because, as the play starts, it looks like the center has the advantage. But that changes quickly.

Breiden Fehoko (#96) is the nose tackle lined up just left of the center on screen.

While this play isn’t physically dominant, it’s just as good. First, take a look at this image

That’s a great image. There’s a massive hole here in the middle of the Chargers defense, with only Breiden Fehoko, who looks pretty solidly blocked, in the way. The problem Derrick Henry has is he needs his center to turn Fehoko to one side so he has a clean lane to run into.

Henry runs straight at his lineman, and even slows down, showing patience as he waits for his center to win the matchup. With the defender closing from the right side, he eventually has to go to the left, and as soon as Fehoko sees that he goes with Henry, forcing him further outside where his blockers can’t protect him.

The Point:

Breiden Fehoko isn’t a Casey Hampton or even Tyson Alualu level of interior lineman. He offers almost nothing against the pass, and he doesn’t have great ball get-off nor does he win first contact a lot. But he brings incredible strength to recover from losing first contact, and demands double teams from almost every run scheme. His best usage is as a rotational player, providing depth as well as strength in matchups against teams that rely on the runs he is best against.