By Matthew Marczi
It is probably safe to presume that nobody came away impressed by the starting offensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers following their performance against the Washington Redskins in the second preseason game. From the easy swim move used to beat center Maurkice Pouncey for a sack to the multiple penalties negating third down conversions, there were not a lot of positives to take away from the unit’s performance as a whole.
I tend to be an optimistic person in general, though, and although still not encouraging, I do feel a bit better about the offensive line’s performance after being able to re-watch the game. I see no reason that they will not be able to rebound and perform well tonight.
In the meantime, however, I would like to take a look specifically at right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who has been under fire over the past season plus, whether it was falling on players or not playing with passion, whatever the slight of the day might be.
Like the rest of the line, Gilbert had his down moments throughout the game. He was not aggressive in chopping down linebacker Ryan Kerrigan on the pick six when he knew, presumably, that a quick pass was called, allowing Kerrigan to elevate and make an excellent play in snagging the ball and returning it for a touchdown.
Realistically, however, there were three elements of that play, and Gilbert was the least significant, as he neither threw nor caught the pass. Additionally, he was later beaten to the edge by Kerrigan, who was quick enough to penetrate the pocket and bat the ball out of Bruce Gradkowski’s hand. But more on that later.
The starting offensive line played throughout the first half. They did not get off to much of a great start on Le’Veon Bell’s single drive, though reviewing the tape, it is clear that Gilbert had little to do with Bell rushing for just nine yards on four carries. On the third snap, for example, which went for no gain, he had defensive end Kedric Golston under full control and showed a willingness to play through the whistle that many have suggested that he lacks.
On the first play of the second drive, he helped David Paulson and Jerricho Cotchery collapse the left side of the defense, leaving Jonathan Dwyer with an easy path to a double-digit gain. Unfortunately, on the next play, he collided with an unawares Dwyer, who seemed unsure of whether or not he was in pass protection or was a release valve. On the play, Pouncey was beaten for a sack right up the middle by nose tackle Barry Cofield, but given his eyes and his position on the field, Dwyer likely would have been in no position to pick him up anyway. The next play was the pick-six.
Gilbert got right back after it on the next play, however. On first down, he started on a double-team block with David DeCastro on Cofield and then peeled off to wall off linebacker London Fletcher at the second level. Unfortunately, DeCastro was unable to sustain his block on the nose tackle, who easily made the tackle on Dwyer after a three-yard gain.
Two plays later, he was rushed by linebacker Brandon Jenkins, who initially had the leverage. However, he soon firmed up and anchored himself, firmly holding off the linebacker as Ben Roethlisberger delivered the first down pass to Emmanuel Sanders. The only problem is that the pass was negated by an illegal formation penalty on Mike Adams over at left tackle. Adams was tossed aside on the next play by Daryl Tapp for a four-yard loss to force a punt.
Late in the first quarter, Gilbert showed good pass protection against Kerrigan, giving Roethlisberger enough time to hit Antonio Brown for a 20-yard pass. On the next play, though, he was beaten by Golston, who fought with Gilbert down the line to the left, ultimately making the primary tackle on the ball carrier. Although Dwyer still netted five yards on the first-down run, this type of play is one area that could use improvement from Gilbert in the run game, which occurred multiple times during this game alone, that could help turn those five-yard gains into 25-yard gains.
On the very next play, however, he helped make the big gainer to Paulson possible by quickly picking up the blitzing linebacker after the defensive line shifted to the offensive left side, leaving Gilbert looking for somebody to block as fullback Will Johnson picked up a rushing Ryan Kerrigan. Gilbert was initially heading to his left to assist DeCastro before picking up Fletcher coming in on the blitz.
Fletcher won the first round with the element of surprise, pushing Gilbert back a few yards. However, Gilbert quickly anchored down and completely immobilized the veteran inside linebacker, leaving him ineffectually flailing in the air. Credit, of course, also goes to Johnson, who stuck with a tough block on Kerrigan and eventually brought him to the ground.
Later on the drive, Gilbert continued to put in solid work against Kerrigan while Adams struggled with Tapp on the opposite end, when two penalties conspired to keep the Steelers out of the end zone. When it was finally third and 18, Gilbert worked well with Pouncey to double-team defensive end Stephen Bowen before peeling off the block to seal off Jenkins, opening a big running lane for Dwyer, who had a chance of converting had Sanders done a better job of impeding cornerback DeAngelo Hall down the field.
The first series with Gradkowski—which lasted all but two plays—was not a pretty one for Gilbert, on the other hand. On first down, he failed to get the angle on Golston, who proceeded to make the tackle after a one-yard gain. On second down, he was beaten for the strip sack by Kerrigan.
Pre-snap, Kerrigan slid over from head-on with the tight end to on the outside shoulder, which could have played a role in altering Gilbert’s angle of attack. Still, he seemed to be in fair position to at least push Kerrigan around the skirt of the pocket, but Kerrigan was able to shed Gilbert’s hand block with an uppercut move.
Fortunately, he was afforded the opportunity to stay in the game rather than on such a low note that significantly put a damper on his overall performance with the aforementioned strip sack. At this point, it is also worth acknowledging that Ryan Kerrigan is a very good player with a very strong and quick first step off the line of scrimmage, and is better than most of the pass rushers that he will see on the offensive right side.
Gilbert started off by helping afford Gradkowski the opportunity to take off running after Paulson slipped off his block and allowed pressure on the quarterback. On the next play, he stepped up to the second level and completely rode London Fletcher out of the play, all the while running down the field and maintaining his block, en route to a 23-yard run by Dwyer.
Unfortunately for Dwyer, he fumbled on the next play.
There is not much else worth highlighting, either positively or negatively, from Gilbert, who left with the rest of the starters at the end of the first half. He had another second-level block on a running play that went nowhere, and he also did a nice job to recover after being beaten on a rush, somehow blocking the guy to the ground without holding despite behing practically behind him. By no means was this a great performance from Gilbert. However, it was also far from the disaster that some have suggested, and it is certainly no fuel for the “bench Gilbert for Kelvin Beachum” fire.