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Film Room: Nick Herbig Continues Hot Start with Steelers



Steelers Nick Herbig

After lighting it up during training camp in Latrobe, there was plenty of anticipation surrounding the NFL debut of new Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Nick Herbig in the team’s first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday.

The fourth-round pick from Wisconsin didn’t waste any time acclimating himself to his new environment. He tallied a pair of sacks to go along with a run stop in very limited action against the Bucs.

Let’s take a look at how Herbig’s traits are responsible for his early push for playing time on an already loaded Steelers defense.

Herbig didn’t see any action until the start of the third quarter but quickly made a lasting impact. Aligned as a wide nine-technique outside of the tight end, Herbig showed off his best trait as a player: his explosiveness.

On this play, he looks like he’s shot out of a cannon, getting off the ball by rolling off his front foot and gaining ground up the field. The Bucs are pulling their tight end across the formation on this play action protection, making it difficult for Bucs right tackle Luke Goedeke to get to his spot. With Herbig getting such a good jump, he was likely beating him to the corner anyway. Whenever a pass rusher meets the quarterback at the top of his drop, that’s a big time win for the defense.

It’s not often you see tackles have to sprint full speed to their spot to protect the outside against an edge rusher but that’s how scary Herbig’s speed can be as a pass rusher. This is also a nice display of his lower body flexibility, another vastly important trait for an edge rusher. Even when’s contacted by the blocker, he turns this tight corner with ease and doesn’t lose any momentum on his path. One subtle detail to note here is that once he gets into the quarterback’s vicinity, he attacks the throwing hand in an attempt to strip the ball loose, which displays a playmaking mindset. Pressures are good and sacks are better, but turnovers truly flip the script of a game. Though the play didn’t result in a takeaway, the process here is noteworthy.

Throughout the rest of his matchups with the Bucs right tackle, Herbig stuck with what he knows best as a pure speed rusher, focusing on moves to win on the outside shoulder. Knowing this, the right tackle was primarily focused on getting out of his stance quickly and trying to push him up the arc.

On this play later in the game, Herbig lines up in a three-point stance and flashes a brilliant inside swim counter move. Once Herbig sees the blocker’s shoulders turn, he plants his inside arm on the blocker’s chest plate. Once he knocks him off balance, he then executes an arm-over move to win swiftly inside.

It’s imperative for speed rushers like Herbig, to have some sort of counter when offensive lineman begin to overset or turn their shoulders to protect the outside track. There were times on his college tape where Herbig found himself in similar situations, with the offensive tackle completely turned to the sideline, but he continued up the arc and end up losing the rep. Pass rushing is an art and having a plan on every rep is crucial. It’s not often that the first move is what wins the rep. Those second reaction sequences are often instances where the sack totals grow. This is a small sample size — after all, it’s only one rep — but this could be a sign of promising development.

While rushing the passer is what gets players paid, being able to adequately play the run is still important. Despite being on the smaller side for the position in college, Herbig had some impressive flashes defending the run.

Here, with the Bucs running to the strong side of the formation away from him, Herbig gives a quick jab step to the outside before slanting inside and underneath the blocker’s hands. From that point forward, it was all hustle as you see the rookie comes screaming down the line of scrimmage to make the tackle while trailing. This resulted in a 3-yard gain on the play, making it an unsuccessful attempt for the offense and a run stop for Herbig.

Herbig’s size concerns coming out of college were likely a primary reason that he slid to the third day of the 2023 NFL Draft, with many projecting him to transition to an off-ball linebacker role at the next level. As a run defender, Herbig doesn’t overwhelm blockers with power and strength. Instead, he uses his quick footwork and change of direction ability to effectively evade blockers on his way to the ball carrier. His lack of length sometimes gets him in trouble, but if he can make plays like this where he can avoid those sorts of tight engagements altogether, he should be reliable enough in this regard.

While he was certainly sticking to his strengths during his preseason debut, we did see some of his newly implemented pass rush moves. He tried a cross-chop (using his inside hand to swipe the blockers outside hand), a move that his teammate T.J. Watt has perfected.

There also this rep below where he attempted a ghost move. He flashes an inside long arm, attempting to get the blocker to show his hands, before dipping underneath. Neither of these moves were successful but it shows that he’s serious about taking insights from Watt, Alex Highsmith and the other veteran edge rushers on the Steelers roster and adding them into his repertoire. The preseason is a perfect setting for him to try and perfect these new moves against his competition.

Herbig’s lightning quick first step and explosiveness have the potential to be calling cards for him as a pass rusher. The Steelers saw how important quality depth can be for the position when Watt suffered an injury that kept him sidelined for essentially half of the season. With a loaded position group on paper, Herbig appeared headed for special teams duty as a rookie. Given how he’s played thus far, he may end up forcing the Steelers into giving him some sort of role off the bench.

The Steelers are betting on traits and their track record speaks for itself. It’s still too early to make any sort of proclamation about his future, but the early returns are certainly overwhelmingly positive and that’s worth getting excited about.

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