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Maxx Crosby: Pittsburgh Steelers’ New Number One Priority



Steelers Raiders DE Maxx Crosby
Las Vegas Raiders DE Maxx Crosby

The NFL schedule makers certainly didn’t do the Pittsburgh Steelers starting tackles any favors this season. The group has been tasked with facing a gauntlet of ridiculously talented edge rushers to begin 2023. From the newly paid Nick Bosa, a familiar face in Myles Garrett, things don’t get much easier in week three as Maxx Crosby eagerly awaits.  Even though Crosby isn’t quite the household media darling as some of his peers, he’s every bit as productive and then some. 


One way to understand the lack of oversight in terms of recognition is that Crosby simply hasn’t played on a good defense or quite frankly, with many good defensive players. Since he was drafted in 2019, the Raiders have yet to finish better than 25th in points per drive on that side of the ball. That’s certainly not his fault, however. There’s plenty of blame to go around but even despite the lack of a supporting cast, Crosby just keeps getting better and better each fall. 


Coming off a 15-sack season in which he was finished top three in QB pressure and QB hits according to PFF and he’s off to another stellar start this season. Through the first two games, the former fourth-round selection has already accumulated ten pressures and a sack while being essentially the only real established pass rushing threat on the Raiders roster. Chandler Jones, his presumed counterpart entering the season, has yet to suit up. Tyree Wilson definitely looks the part getting off the bus but he’s far from a finished product at this point in time. So, like Bosa and Garrett before him, Crosby is the Steelers unquestioned number one priority.


The one glaring similarity between the three players is that they’re all freak athletes. In particular, Crosby is as explosive as they come. Coming out of Eastern Michigan, he tested out of this world, boasting a 6.89 second 3-come time. This particular drill is one that NFL scouts pay very close attention to for pass rushers as it’s one of the more translatable indicators of future success. 


The first thing you notice when studying Crosby is his elite get-off. His first step is lethal and he’s consistently the first player off the ball. From the Steelers perspective, right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor will be primarily responsible for keeping him in check. Okorafor is a solid athlete in his own regard and does a nice job of getting out in his stance quickly, something that is a prerequisite when trying to slow Crosby down. If you don’t hit your landmark in time, Crosby will blow by you in the blink of an eye. 


When Crosby first entered the league, he was fairly raw and basically an empty canvas from a pass-rushing plan perspective. He was productive from the jump but his toolbox acceleration is the primary reason for his continued improvement. Every great rusher needs a signature move. Crosby’s is the two-hand swipe or what some refer to as the “side-scissors.” As a tackle, if you use a two-hand punch or show your hands too early in the rep, he’ll simply swipe them away unaffected on his way to the quarterback. Okorafor needs to remain patient and light on his outside hand to avoid becoming his latest victim. 


Crosby’s speed allows him to threaten tackles outside shoulder consistently. Over the course of the game, he’ll start setting up his inside counters, especially in passing situations. The NFL has an insane amount of talent players at this position but few, if any, have as many effective inside moves as Crosby. He’ll use rips or swipes with success, but the most devastating move is his inside spin move. Similar to Steelers edge rusher Alex Highsmith’s inside spin move, Crosby’s is a work of art. He’ll manipulate his strides and tempo to keep tackles on their toes. For Okorafor, it’s imperative to stay square and balanced to avoid lunging because if not, there’s no recovering from this move. 


Often times, the difference between good and great players comes down to intangibles. Steelers fans are used to seeing T.J. Watt, among others, make these jaw-dropping hustle plays. Crosby is really no different in that regard. His motor runs red-hot from the opening snap until the clock hits zeros. He played an astounding 96% of the Raiders defensive snaps last season. His impeccable physical condition allows him to shoulder a hefty workload and is part of what helps set him apart. 


Conventional football wisdom has always told us that the best to neutralize a great sack artist is to run at them. The problem is, that doesn’t really work against Crosby. In 2022, he notched eight more run stops than any other defender in the league per PFF. He’s much improved at the point of attack, slippery to avoid blocks and his athleticism shows up when trailing from behind. This is one way where he separates himself a bit from a player like Garrett, who is probably a better rusher, but his interest in playing the run comes and goes at times.


To summarize: there’s not really any holes in Crosby’s game. The Steelers will follow the blueprint of the first two weeks and give Okorafor plenty of help in the form of chips and double teams from tight ends or running backs. This isn’t necessarily rocket science. The Bills gave their right tackle an enormous amount of help last week in an attempt to slow down the Raiders star. He still put some impressive reps on tape and won the vast majority of his chances when singled up, but he wasn’t able to do enough to win them the game. 


The Steelers probably aren’t going to be able to completely neutralize him. He’s going to win some reps, especially during the rare moments where he gets true one-on-one opportunities. As is the case when matching up with any dominant force, they just have to work to minimize his impact on the final score. Simply put, don’t let him single-handedly beat you as he’s done to opposing teams in the past. 


Pittsburgh has another significant challenge ahead of them. If they can keep Crosby out of Kenny Pickett’s vicinity, there’s holes in this defense to exploit. But it’s not going to be easy no matter the circumstances.