Steelers Film Room: Is Gerod Holliman’s Physicality, Effort Fixable?

If you follow me on Twitter, I’m sure you’re well aware of my thoughts on new Pittsburgh Steelers safety Gerod Holliman, who I repeatedly referred to during the pre-draft process as a player I would not have on my board as a general manager. Granted the Steelers waited until the seventh round to take the Louisville Cardinals product, wise discretion which minimizes the risk of the move by Kevin Colbert and co.

Still, what bothers me most about Holliman as a player, is that I am not sure his issues are particularly fixable at the NFL level. What showed up consistently on tape as his biggest issues were a lack of physicality, effort, and tackling ability. Now the latter might be fixable with plenty of practice, but Holliman is still well below the threshold of correct tackling form and technique that is typical acceptable at even the college level. More than anything however, it is the consistent lack of physicality that Holliman shows that I’m not sure can be corrected. Take the play below as exhibit A:

Holliman has a clean shot to tackle the runner in the hole and keep the play to a minimal game, but he avoids the opportunity to instead nip at the back’s ankles with a weak attempt. I wrote down 3-4 other GIFs of Holliman that looked exactly like this play, and that was only going through a game-and-a-half of tape.

And while part of Holliman’s struggles may stem from a lack of correct tackling form and technique (another 3-4 GIFs for that), the play below again highlights my main concern, an innate lack of physicality and nastiness to get runners to the ground. Seeing his teammate struggling to complete a tackle, Holliman runs up and, well, you be the judge of whatever this is.

A lack of physicality compounded by a lack of effort is an ugly combination as a football player at any position, but especially when functioning as the last line of defense.

In the play below, Holliman gets taken out easily by a diving cut block, before proceeding to give minimal effort to recover on the play. When he finally does track the ballcarrier down, Holliman curiously runs right past him without any effort to make a stop.

As an evaluator, I struggled to even put this play into words. A lack of effort? Awareness? Physicality? All three? Probably the latter option, but to see it so vividly in an NFL prospect was simply startling. You simply don’t often see these kind of plays when evaluating high level prospects.

Of course, it was these kind of plays that dropped Holliman from some early first round chatter to a seventh round flier, as teams were scared off by his tackling deficiencies and an obvious desire to avoid contact.

What often gets mentioned as the redeeming quality surrounding Holliman, is the fact he had 14 interceptions during his redshirt junior year, an impressive number to say the least. However statistics can lie, and while Holliman is better in coverage than he is near the line of scrimmage, his interception numbers were clearly inflated by poor throws and tipped passes.

Here’s a good example of what I’m referring to. Holliman is beaten on the out route by the receiver, actually getting turned around in coverage, a huge technique no-no. But because his teammate makes a nice tip on a badly under-thrown and off-target pass, Holliman gets the easy INT. An NFL quarterback makes this throw to beat the safety for a big gain nine times out of ten.

Many would forgive Holliman’s tackling deficiencies if he were a freak athlete or cover safety extraordinaire, but that simply isn’t the case. Holliman wasn’t playing single-high, deep safety roles at Louisville because he displayed elite range, he was there because it was the only place they could put him that he wasn’t a liability defensively. Did he make some positive plays there? Sure, and those plays were enough to get an undraftable player drafted in my opinion.

But the argument shouldn’t so much revolve around what Holliman did in college anymore, but instead it should reflect on what he brings to the NFL. No one expects to see much of the rookie safety in the defensive lineup for Pittsburgh this season, but typically tackling, effort and athleticism are necessities for special teamers, traits that Holliman doesn’t appear to bring to the table. The Louisville safety posted some horrific numbers at his college pro day, including a 27-inch vertical, three-and-a-half inches lower than 345-pound nose tackle Danny Shelton. Combine those numbers with a 4.65 40-yard dash and a 4.45 short shuttle, and you get the athletic scores of a player who has already played his best football.

Of course, the question surrounding Holliman is if he can change his stars in the NFL. Was he really hindered so much by a two-year old shoulder injury that he couldn’t tackle, or is his lack of physicality and toughness an innate deficiency? Is there any way that a player who so consistently displayed himself to be a massive liability can somehow re-write his narrative and become a high-effort, hard-hitting, tone-setting presence at a higher level of football?

For Holliman, the answer had better be yes. The Steelers may have taken a chance on the play-making safety with a seventh-round selection, but that won’t stop them from cutting him if he can’t prove himself worthy of at least developmental time as a practice squad player this summer.

For more on Holliman, here’s Alex Kozora’s pre-draft scouting report on the Louisville safety.

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