PITTSBURGH — The Steelers offensive line struggled at every twist and turn last Saturday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was a performance that left a bad taste in all of their mouths and they vowed to change it Sunday against the Detroit Lions. But maybe more important than the performance itself was the struggle that the entire team went through on the day. What was the main issue? How can it be fixed?
There are a number of reasons why the Steelers’ offensive line may be struggling right now. In practice this week, they repped a number of technical things, including hand placement, footwork, and communication in order to rectify the issues. The room is not sulking on the performance. Instead, they went out on the practice field and vowed to change what was occurring on the field.
“It wasn’t good enough,” center Mason Cole said. “It was a bad day on our part. But what are you gonna do, sit here and hang your head about it? It’s preseason, we’re gonna get back to work, and correct the things that went.”
So, okay, what are the issues? In talking to all of the offensive linemen over the week, there was a common denominator in what all of them said — hand usage. For offensive linemen, hand usage is everything. The hard thing about hand usage is there are different techniques for coaches, and obviously, all aspects must be on point to have good hands.
There is hand timing, placement, strike power, grip strength, and punch technique. Some coaches teach a two-handed punch technique, while others teach what is called independent hands. Independent hands are a one-handed strike rather than a two-handed strike. More importantly, the elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle to keep control of the pass rusher to either the outside or the inside. It can work against power rushes and speed rushers.
However, that has been something new to the Steelers this season. Offensive line coach Pat Meyer is working with independent hands as a new philosophy, and it has troubled some players. For James Daniels, hand placement has been his biggest issue. He has played with his hands high and outside, rather than low and inside.
“I think it’s a hand usage thing for me personally,” Daniels said. “Every coach should emphasize hand usage. That’s the way you control defenders and beat defensive linemen. For me, it’s just better placement. My hands are too wide. I need to get better with that.”
Daniels admits that has been a problem for him at times in Chicago, too. Another thing that is compounding the struggles, however, is the more aggressive sets that Meyer is implementing with the team. Both the guards and tackles are jump-setting far more. The goal of the jump set is to get hands on the defender as quickly as possible, and that can be as soon as the first kick for some linemen. However, if hand usage is off, the defender can beat the lineman easily. If the first contact is not initiated, problems arise quickly. Mason Cole has executed jump sets plenty of times, and there is an art to it. Not setting up that hand usage correctly, or too passively, causes linemen to get swiped.
“I utilize the jump set all the time because I’m not a big guy,” Cole said. “I’m not going to sit here and let this 3-techniques tee off on me. I’m gonna try to be aggressive and be on these guys. You want to spend as much time at the line of scrimmage. If we can stonewall the line of scrimmage is great. Taking the fight to them is key.”
On the interior, Daniels admits that he is jump setting more with the Steelers than he was in Chicago. That has been an adjustment. It has not as much been the jump set itself but the frequency in which they do it. As such, that has been an adjustment for Daniels to learn in his first months in Pittsburgh. Kendrick Green has had a similar adjustment period.
“We are jump setting more here for sure, but it really just depends on when you jump set,” Daniels said. “Like, in Chicago, we only jump set on certain plays, but here, it is all the time. I wouldn’t say it’s all that. There were times in Chicago when my hands were bad and I was not jump-setting. But it was a transition for sure.”
But what out at tackle? Dan Moore Jr. has not had the preseason he has wanted, either. For him, it was about hand timing and placement. The aggressive sets, just like Daniels, are not necessarily new, but the philosophy of using them as much is new. Moore feels like he is almost overcorrecting to fix everything, and may need to strip everything down and go back to the basics of it all.
“Man, hand usage got me in trouble,” Moore said. “I was wide with my hands, late with my hands, I let guys get into my body, and I even shortened my edge. When I look at it, 90% of it came down to hand usage. I need to just be a little bit quicker. If you watch the tape, guys are getting their hands on me as soon as I am. In this league, you have to make the first significant contact. I need to shoot my hands a little bit earlier.”
With the Steelers not backing up and vertical setting for most of the time. It comes down to trusting their technique. Even compounding it more is the fact that the Steelers now have had three offensive line coaches in three years. Kevin Dotson has seen that unfold, and the transition certainly muddies the waters for the linemen throughout their careers.
“It’s tough because you don’t actually get that continuity coming together,” Dotson said. “You do not really get to build a bond. Changing every year is tough because once you have those multiple years, you know what to expect and how they expect you to do it. You can get used to it and be more comfortable with less anxiety. Because both of you have a common goal and you know what they want.”
At this point, the Steelers have yet to fully put everything together. They have practiced it enough, however. Cole believes the Steelers have it all, but they simply need to trust their technique at this point. Against the Lions, that is what Pittsburg’s offensive line is looking to accomplish.
“Listen, we are throwing our hands around and we have to be confident,” Cole said. “We have to trust the technique. Out there in practice, we will keep repping it, but if we trust our technique, we can execute the way we want to.”
The Lions bring a few talented pass rushers in Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, Michael Brockers, and others. So, if the Steelers offensive line want to bounce back, this is potentially the game to try and do just that.