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Carter’s Classroom: James Daniels’ Versatility Rubs Off on Steelers’ Line

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Pittsburgh Steelers guard James Daniels works drills during OTAS at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

Click for more of Carter’s Classroom at Steelers Now.

When Kevin Dotson described his struggles from switching from right guard to left, he also noted how James Daniels had stepped up in a leadership role for the young Steelers offensive line.

“We’re more dispersed,” Dotson said when asked who’s leading the offensive line. “Not in a bad way, but it’s like we’re all coming up together. James came in and has taken control of it. He doesn’t say, ‘you need to do this,’ or ‘you need to do that,’ but he’s more like, ‘I used to do this when I was over here, so I think this would help us.’ He has some really good ideas when it comes to different offensive things.”

Daniels’ progression in his first four seasons with the Bears involved him moving from left guard, to center, and then eventually right guard in 2020. But that time of versatility in Chicago is something Daniels’ credit for his ascension to being a consistently reliable NFL starter.

“I learned to be adaptable,” Daniels said Wednesday after OTAs of his time with the Bears. “In Chicago, schematically, we did a lot of different things every week. I had a lot on my plate there, but I felt like I did a good job and they did a good job helping me feel comfortable switching positions and changing schemes week to week.”

Dotson’s struggles at left guard weren’t in how he executed his fundamentals, but how he followed through on plays once he had gotten to his position. Watch this sack that he and Kendrick Green gave up against the Browns last season.

You can see he took the initial proper steps to be in place, but was unable to control his opponent with proper hand strikes to the chest. That allowed him to get thrown backwards while Green didn’t help much, and Roethlisberger got sacked:

When Dotson talked about what led to his struggles, he referenced muscle memory. He might’ve known which gap to protect and which opponents to block, but everything from footwork, hand placement, to any counter moves to pass rushers would be off. Here’s a another example on a sack he gave up against the Bears.

Notice how he’s in the right spot, but once he engages his opponent his body and hands are a bit high. That gave his opponent the space to establish leverage under him, which led to Dotson being shed away and Roethlisberger being sacked again:

Being fair to Dotson, he’s only credited with allowing three sacks last season. It wasn’t a terribly common occurrence, but for him to earn a long term starting job at left guard he’ll have to be better. He knows that, and wants to show that this season.

Daniels is a resource who can help Dotson, as he had to go through the same adjustments between three positions. When asked about Dotson calling him a leader, Daniels chuckled and expressed modesty.

“We all have leadership roles,” Daniels said. “Everyone’s doing their part to help each other out. There’s not really one leader, but it’s coming from everyone. That’s the start of us becoming a great room; everyone helping everyone. Doesn’t matter if you’re first-year, fourth-year or fifth-year.”

When I asked the most Chukwuma Okorafor about leadership on the line as the player with the most starts with the team, he also pointed to Daniels.

“Honestly, I lead by example,” Okorafor said. “I’m normally not the one to go out there and yell or scream. James is more the guy to do that. I focus on helping myself and the guys who might be playing in my spot next year or three years for now.”

Here’s an example when you could see Daniels be more comfortable at right guard. Last season he faced off against Aaron Donald and held his own. Watch this run play where Donald tries an outside move to set up going back to Daniels’ inside shoulder.

Daniels was ready for both and never sold out in either direction against the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Although the play went the other direction, it was a good rep for Daniels:

Here’s another example where Daniels’ work against Donald was at the point of attack. You can see how smoothly Daniels moved towards Donald, kept his feet under him and established leverage.

Daniels wasn’t trying to necessarily push Donald five yards downfield, but he was responsive to how to counter when Donald wanted to attack a gap. When Donald attacked to the inside, Daniels used his momentum to push him further inside and out of the hole so his running back could attack the gap:

While Daniels credits his time in Chicago for his growth to be a more versatile player, he also appreciates the unification in the way the Steelers have begun to work with him.

“In Chicago there were multiple times that trainers, coaches, everyone would say something different,” Daniels said. “It seemed like people weren’t on the same page. But so far here, it seems like everyone’s on the same page and headed to the same goal.”

Daniels also expressed appreciation for his early work with new Steelers offensive line coach Pat Meyer. It’s just the first steps, but if you listen to Daniels, you get the sense Meyer’s approach resonates with him.

“Coach Meyer has been doing a really good job,” Daniels said. “Some of the stuff he’s coaching, I haven’t been taught before. He’s doing a very good job breaking it down to make it simple. Since day 1, we’ve been watching install tapes of his technique on how different guys take on different situations.”

And a big part of what Meyer’s done has been to simplify his teachings so that players can grasp each responsibility.

“A good coach will make it simple when switching positions,” Daniels said about Meyer. “If you’re a right guard and you do it one way, find a way to flip it at left guard. I just tell them to focus on the things that get them in trouble.

“For example,” Daniels continued. “Do you struggle out of a two-point stance? As a center, you’re never in a two-point stance. So you would have to focus on the stance and keep practicing it in drills. If you stick to the things you’re comfortable with, you’ll never grow. It’s drills that are filmed while you’re not going 100 percent. You have the chance to really get coached up on the things you need to work on.”

That simplicity might help Dotson seal the deal at his position. It wasn’t as if he was completely lost last season, and Dotson did acknowledge he grew in his final games. He needs to turn the flashes of positivity into experience.

Watch how he worked in pass protection here against Bilal Nichols (no. 98) and how he properly maintained his gap to the inside until help arrived from Dan Moore Jr.:

There’s potential in the strengths of a very young Steelers offensive line. Daniels and Okorafor are the most experienced in NFL starts, and both are will be only 25 years old by Sept. 2022. If Daniels’ experience and growth in versatility can rub off on Dotson, Green and the others while Meyer works on the group’s cohesion, there’s real upside to their potential.

“Expectations are to get better every day,” Daniels said. “If we do that, not saying we’ll be at (Maurkice) Pouncey-(David) DeCastro levels, but that’s our goal.”

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