When we think of all the ways the Steelers can beat a defense right now, tight end Jesse James’ blocking isn’t something that comes to mind.
Resembling former tight end Heath Miller strictly in stature, James’ blocking in the past has left a great deal to be desired. This has often stifled what might otherwise have been solid gains on the ground. Let’s take a look at a typical James block:
Week 5: 1st Quarter, 4:05 Remaining, 1st & 10, PIT 30
This is about as dreadful as blocking gets. James does very little to impose his body between defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and the ball. That failure is compounded by his hesitancy to engage the defender, and then the defender initiates contact instead. James’ feet aren’t even firmly planted on the ground at the moment of first contact, which is a fundamental failure of inline blocking.
The result is predictable. The defender gets leverage, gets James off-balance and is able to make the play from the backside. It’s compounded by left guard Ramon Foster being slow to engage, forcing him to make a head-down lunge block -- another absolute breakdown of fundamentals that, fortunately, is very uncommon for Foster.
Now, let’s look at how he finished the season as an inline blocker.
Week 15: 1st Quarter, 13:05 Remaining, 2nd & 15, PIT 28
By Week 15, James’ blocking had improved a great deal. In what might have been a huge gain for Bell against the Patriots, James handles Trey Flowers with relative ease. Flowers tries to get inside James as Bell initially moves toward the left B-gap before bouncing outside. James takes advantage of Flowers’ momentum with a solid punch to his outside shoulder, knocking him off-balance. Flowers has to fight just to stay on his feet, and James continues to engage until just before the whistle. There’s an aggressiveness in his block that had been missing earlier in the season and, truth be told, in just about his entire career before this.
Week 16: 2nd Quarter, 8:13 Remaining, 2nd & 7, PIT 33
This might be my favorite block in James’ career so far. Linebacker Bernardrick McKinney never had a prayer here, as James engages aggressively and immediately redirects the linebacker. Once he has McKinney off-balance, James simply starts driving with his legs, completely eliminating the defender from the play.
But it doesn’t end there. James is so aggressive with this block that he ends up taking three defenders out of the play as he forces McKinney back into Brandon Dunn and Jadeveon Clowney. Neither of them were likely to have a chance at making a play, but James guaranteed exactly that by finishing an already monstrous block.
Week 17: 1st Quarter, 12:13 Remaining, 2nd & 10, CLE 47
Finally, we see James against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17. While this block isn’t nearly as impressive as the previous one, it does show a consistency from week to week. Here, we see him quickly engage the outside shoulder of defensive end Carl Nassib, who had crashed inside to plug the middle. Because of James’ block, Nassib had no chance to get out of the pile to make a play. James stays engaged throughout the entire play and, by the time the whistle blows, he’s pushing Nassib in the direction of the opposite end zone.
James’ growth has been impressive this season. He’s more willing to be the aggressor now and seems to understand how to use his base, leverage and length to his advantage. After looking hesitant and timid previously in his career, he’s now engaging defenders before they can get into his body and knock him off-balance. That’s going to be a key to the Steelers’ running game, as it makes him more versatile, allowing the team to run a greater variety of plays when he’s on the field. Coupled with his improvement as a receiver this season, his blocking adds yet another dimension to an offense that’s already difficult to defend, and one that’s hitting on all cylinders.
The Steelers present problems for any pass defense due to the sheer number of possible receivers — James, Bell, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Vance McDonald and Eli Rogers are all legitimate threats when they’re on the field. With James now becoming a capable blocker as well, this offense is well on its way to being impossible to stop. And Jacksonville simply doesn’t have an offense that can keep pace in a shootout.