The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line has been the topic of scrutiny for many in the national media following their 11-0 start and their untimely exit in the Wild Card Round against the Cleveland Browns in the 2020 playoffs. To much of our knowledge, the play upfront diminished as the season wore on with the team being abysmal in the ground game, completely abandoning the run altogether at times and resorting to a dink-and-dunk passing game which defenses exploited.
Now with the loses of Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva via free agency, Pittsburgh has had to do some shuffling up front with their offensive line. Zach Banner figures to return from injury and man the RT spot, and Chukwuma Okorafor has been tabbed as the man to move from starting 15 games at right tackle in 2020 to manning the blindside in 2021.
Now Okorafor is still only 23 years old and will just turn 24 at the start of the 2021 season. He primarily played in a reserve role and as a tackle-eligible player his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, showing the ups and downs you would come to expect from a developmental tackle drafted in the third round. When it comes to pass protection, Okorafor has some good traits for a man that stands 6’6″, 320 lbs. He is quick out of stance and has good foot speed for a man of his size, being able to establish the arc of the pocket and engage pass rushers on the edge.
Here in 2019 against the Rams, we see Okorafor get a good jump off the snap against #50 Samson Ebukam and give him a great punch, shocking him back and stalling his rush. Okorafor has been often dinged for lack of hand placement and nastiness as a run blocker and pass protector, but this shows he has it in him to play with some power in his hand strike.
But there are many instances where Chuks struggles to get good hand placement inside the defender’s chest and sustain his block past initial contact. Here we see Chuks set too far outside, allowing Dante Fowler to come across his face inside. Chuks fails to pick him up as he shoots through, putting pressure on Mason Rudolph in the pocket.
Again, another example against Los Angeles where #52 Clay Matthews gets the corner on Chuks, who gets his hands chopped down as Matthews pursues Rudolph from behind to get in on the action.
Another ugly example here against Cleveland where Chuks appears to slip with bad footing underneath him, but still lunges forward and freezes his feet on this block attempt on #54 Olivier Vernon, shooting his hands too early and whiffing as Vernon runs unimpeded to the QB for the sack.
With that said, Okorafor has moments where he puts it all together and it looks pretty in pass protection, like we see here on this rep against #41 Josh Allen. We see a good kick step on the snap, good foot movement, and a strong, accurate punch into Allen’s chest where he locks on and manages to keep Allen from breaking away to neutralize the rush.
Chuks’ effort and performance against the Texans this past season was especially impressive, being able to go toe-to-toe with #99 J.J. Watt for much of the game and hold his own; an impressive feat for a 23-year-old. Here are a couple of clips from Steelers Depot’s very own Devin Jackson highlighting Okorafor’s footwork in pass protection, punch, and ability to adjust to Watt’s counter moves he throws his way.
Chuks has had his moments of brilliance against some of the league’s best pass rushers. He has gone toe-to-toe with Watt, Aaron Donald, and even held his own against Von Miller when thrown into the fire as a rookie. Here we see a good rep against #95 Myles Garrett where Chuks shows good patience in his pass set, staying disciplined and having Garrett come to him, and playing the chop/rip perfectly by getting underneath Garrett’s shoulder and running around the arc.
While there have been moments of brilliance with Okorafor, there have been moments where you want to look away from the screen as well. Granted, he is a young player still learning, but some of these lapses are concerning. One example comes from his experience at LT in the preseason in 2019 against Tampa Bay, where he misjudges the depth of the pocket against #57 Noah Spence and allows Spence right into the lap of Josh Dobbs for the big loss of yardage.
I know, I know, this was well over a year ago, right? Well we see a similar circumstance here this past season in Buffalo where Chuks doesn’t throw a punch on the edge rusher until he is past his shoulder and gets around the corner to apply pressure on Ben, who has to let the ball go early before the WR can separate.
Okorafor’s pad level and base can also stand to be more consistent, as he can tend to stand up and lose leverage when he shoots his hands forward when he is anticipating his punch. Check out this beauty of a rep against Washington where Chuks gets a little high and shoots forward on his pass set, getting the long arm from #91 Ryan Kerrigan and getting completely uprooted and landing on his butt as Kerrigan gets a hit on Roethlisberger.
Here is another example of Chuks ceding ground in pass protection due to lack of anchoring down. However, Chuks does get his feet set and gets his hands inside the defender’s torso, stopping his pursuit and eventually uplifting him into the air and into the ground. Sadly, the entire pocket collapsed on this rep, resulting in a throw away by Mason Rudolph.
Okorafor shows an understanding of twists and stunts from the defensive front, being able to switch with the guard and pick up the defender coming to the outside. Here in the same game we see a couple of examples (one provided below) of Chuks recognizing the twist and picking up the defender to keep the pocket clean.
Overall, there is much to take here from Okorafor’s pass protection heading into 2021. It’s understandable why Pittsburgh has faith in him moving to the left side given that is where he played at Western Michigan before being moved to the right side in the pros. Chuks also has had positive flashes of play against some of the best the league has to offer on the edge, showing the tools necessary to be a capable starting left tackle in the NFL. On the other hand, we see a lot of low moments as well that are a cause for concern knowing he is supposed to be “the guy” at the blindside spot. If it doesn’t work out, Pittsburgh could be in trouble and in the market for a left tackle early in the 2022 NFL Draft.
When it comes to steady pass protection, it will be hard to replace the play that Big Al has provided the team the last several seasons. However, given Al’s deficiencies as a run blocker and the fact that he is nearly a decade older than Chuks, I understand the move to find out what you have in him in a contract year to see if he can be that guy for you, or if it is best to move on at the end of the season.
I was disappointed the team didn’t address OT earlier than in the fourth round in the draft. After conducting this study, I am hopeful that we will see more improvement in Chuks heading into year four as a guy that can be at least serviceable on the blind side, being more consistent and less erratic for a team needing much improved play along the offensive line.
What are your thoughts on Chuks heading into the season? Do you think he can be more consistent in pass protection and potentially play his way into an extension in Pittsburgh? Do you see him as backup-caliber and will likely out of town come the end of the season due to inconsistent play? Thanks again for reading and please leave your thoughts below!