Replacing Heath Miller is no easy task. Just ask Jesse James, who has been given the task of trying to fill those gigantic shoes once worn by No. 83. James' game has evolved immensely since his 2015 rookie season, but he is far from a polished blocker.
We take a look at three plays during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Philadelphia Eagles preseason game last week which saw James struggle. Granted, there are always plays where he does his job, and doesn't get noticed, but some of these mistakes could lead to huge consequences for the black and gold offense.
Swing and a Miss
You hear the term "whiff" a lot when referencing baseball, but rarely is it used in the sport of football. This would be a pretty good example of such a phenomenon in football, as you see above, when James seems to have a good drop back in pass protection, simply gets abused by the most basic pass rushing technique.
Maybe he expected a spin move, or a bull rush, but to have his hands swept away as he does with ease, leaves a really sour taste in your mouth. If James is going to be deployed as a pass blocker, these types of situations can't happen or the quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, will be dead before Week 4.
I'm thinking offensive coordinator Todd Haley notices this and will use specific offensive packages to avoid this situation in the future.
Not all situations are James' fault
In this play you see a counter play with Fitzgerald Toussaint running the football and James as the lead blocker. James is coming across the formation to pave the way for Toussaint. If you look at the grand scheme of the play, if Toussaint doesn't cut the play up, it could have been a big gain for the Steelers on the ground.
Now, some will suggest James block, or lack thereof, is what caused Toussaint to cut the play to the interior, rather than stringing the play outside; however, when you watch James' approach, he looks as if he is setting up for Toussaint to run off his back, and therefore the outcome is not pretty.
James' angle isn't the best as he approaches the linebacker, but I still believe if Toussaint reads this play to the outside, the outcome, and the scrutiny of James' blocking, would be totally different.
In-line blocking is not the easiest skill in the world, and most modern NFL tight ends aren't any good at it, hence the Jimmy Graham types who would rather be split wide than anywhere near the trenches. However, here you see James matched up against a much larger defensive end along the Eagles 4-3 alignment.
He does a great job extending and moving the defender out of the running lane. In other words, he did his job on this play. If Ramon Foster doesn't get beat to the inside, this could be another healthy gain for the Steelers on the ground. Nonetheless, this type of blocking shows how far James has progressed since coming out of Penn State when everyone said he wasn't capable in both run and pass blocking.
James is a work-in-progress, especially when it comes to blocking, but he is improving. Inconsistent was the word used in the headline of this Film Room, and it certainly fits the bill when describing James. He has plays where he was outstanding -- think vs. the Raiders last year when he stone-walled two defenders as Martavis Bryant scampered into the end zone -- and then there are plays where you scratch your head wondering "what the..." -- see the first play above.
While some may see this as a clear weakness for the Steelers offense in 2016, you might be surprised how much can be disguised and covered up by scheme. James will have a large role on the team, but don't be shocked to see the Steelers throw an extra tackle on the field in specific situations to avoid some of the miscues caused by James' inconsistency.
As a franchise the Steelers have "covered up" tight ends lacking in the blocking game. Jay Bruener was one of those players in the Bill Cowher era, especially early in his NFL career.
All is not lost for "The Outlaw", and as long as progress continues to be made, he could be a great tight end in the NFL for a long time.