By Matthew Marczi
John Malecki, entering his fourth season in the league and third with the Pittsburgh Steelers, appears intent on entering the regular season as part of the 53-man roster for the first time in his career. With the departure of Doug Legursky in free agency, Malecki is the most accomplished center on the team behind Maurkice Pouncey, increasing the odds of the former Pittsburgh Panther being active on game days in 2013.
The fact that he also performed quite well, particularly in conjunction with the first-team offensive line where his play would matter most, certainly did nothing to hinder his mission of earning a roster spot. He entered Saturday’s preseason game after just 19 offensive snaps, relieving Pouncey toward the end of the first quarter, and played the rest of the game, moving to right guard in the second half.
The fact that Malecki’s play suffered somewhat being sandwiched between Justin Cheadle at center and Kelvin Beachum at tackle, I believe, speaks as much to the quality of player he was asked to play with as it does his own abilities. Of course, it is also possible that he is more comfortable at center, though it is a position that he only learned on the professional level.
More importantly, however, the New York Giants are a good opponent against which to measure interior offensive line play, because they as much as anybody this offseason are deep at the defensive tackle position.
From Linval Joseph to Cullen Jenkins, from Mike Patterson, Shaun Rogers, and Marvin Austin to rookie Johnathan Hankins, the Giants have invested a lot in the position this offseason. Joseph, Austin, and Hankins are all former second-round draft picks for the Giants, and Joseph in particular has really started to blossom. For this reason, the Giants present a more consistent challenge for interior offensive linemen from the top to the bottom of their depth chart than most teams in the league.
On his first play in the game, Malecki helped Ramon Foster seal off Mike Patterson as quarterback Bruce Gradkowski executed a naked bootleg and completed a nine-yard pass to fullback Will Johnson. On the next play, he showed off his much-improved strength, getting the better of Patterson and pushing him backward long enough for running back Jonathan Dwyer to have no worry of a pursuit from the interior defensive line on a run outside for 11 yards.
In fact, he proved consistently throughout the night that strength should not be a deterrent to his success on the professional level, which was an issue for Legursky in the past. Malecki is observably stronger than in the past, and it has certainly helped his game.
The one demerit that he earned while partnered with the starting offensive line was on a drive early in the second quarter, on the first down play after Jarvis Jones’ fumble recovery. He and David DeCastro had both engaged Hankins; however, there was a miscommunication between the two as to which one would take him, and both released him into the backfield. Hankins was allowed to pressure the quarterback and force a throwaway.
Two plays later, however, he and Foster were able to successfully, if not fluidly, switch off assignments as linebacker Matt Brouha and Marvin Austin attempted to execute a stunt to give Gradkowski enough time to find tight end David Paulson, which set up a manageable fourth down situation that Markus Wheaton converted on the next play.
After the first down, Malecki’s ability to get out in front of a stretch play was on display as he aggressively pursued Hankins out of the play. It is certainly through no fault of his own, but rather a poor read by Dwyer—coupled with an insufficient block by David Paulson—that this play went for a loss.
Malecki took but one snap during nearly the first five minutes of the second half, and that play was on the Landry Jones safety; however, it is fair to point out that he got strong push on Marvin Austin on the play in his first snap of the game at guard.
Of course, not all was perfect for Malecki, who helped to give up a sack and a hurry late in the game. On a third down play midway through the fourth quarter, Justin Cheadle tried to switch off a defensive tackle to him, and the tackle ended up splitting a sack. Late in the game, he was beaten cleanly by Austin, who ultimately was able to guide himself and Malecki into tight end Peter Tuitupou, freeing his man, Adewale Ojomo, to get the sack. The play set up a fourth and 20 that went nowhere, ending the Steelers’ chances of coming back.
On the one hand, Malecki displayed an ability to get in front of a screen pass and execute a downfield block. On the other, he struggled to get much push or sustain a block too often in the run game, despite some impressive individual plays, and he allowed more penetration on some passing plays than a quarterback is normally comfortable with. Still, Malecki seemed to show enough, especially with the starters, to feel comfortable with him as a key reserve this season—thus far.