Last week was our first opportunity to get a glimpse of the supposedly new and improved Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line under the tutelage of Mike Munchak against the New York Giants. Reports have been suggesting that Marcus Gilbert has been his star pupil of sorts, in terms of showing improvement under his watch, and I believe that we saw some of that on Saturday night.
Of particular interest to me was his effectiveness in the running game, which has not always been his area of expertise. Generally a bit more of a pass protector, he was seen as a bit too timid—fair or not—to be aggressive in driving forward blocking for the run.
Gilbert showed that not to be the case from the Steelers’ first offensive snap of the game when he came off the ball strong and took off to the second level after helping Matt Spaeth by chipping defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. He was able to get square on former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain, sealing him off five yards beyond the line of scrimmage before he finally peeled off once Le’Veon Bell passed.
A few plays later in the drive, we had a bit of déjà vu, only it was LeGarrette Blount in at running back this time. Once again, the run went through the C Gap around the inside shoulder of the tight end, with Gilbert further ahead sticking to McClain. The first play picked up nine yards, while this one picked up a respectable five.
If you were wondering at the seemingly unusual frequency of snaps with the right tackle on the move, considering Gilbert is not considered the most athletic of the linemen, the following play offered a more traditional look for the position. On this occasion, rather than chipping him, Gilbert squared up with Kiwanuka and stalemated him at the line of scrimmage, though the run went to the far side of the formation.
Granted, it was no spotless performance for the fourth-year right tackle. One area in which he has struggled over the years is in cut blocking, and here he failed to do so effectively against the veteran Cullen Jenkins, who had the first best opportunity to bring Bell down before Jason Pierre-Paul does after a gain of only one. Not only that, Spaeth wound up as collateral damage on the play, tripping over Gilbert and freeing up linebacker Jacquian Williams to get in on the gang tackle.
Later on in the half, on his final drive of the game, Gilbert was able to get back to what he is more comfortable doing, squaring up with Kiwanuka. On the snap, he turned inside to get Kiwanuka perpendicular. Again, however, the run went in the opposite direction.
In all, the opening preseason game was a good one for Marcus Gilbert, heading into his fourth season, and the final of his rookie contract. While he had a strong all-around game in his 14 or so snaps, I believe his showing in the running game was more revealing of his progress.