The Pittsburgh Steelers have performed an overhaul of the offensive line over the course of the offseason, seeing the likes of long-time starting center Maurkice Pouncey leave via retirement and starting LT Alejandro Villanueva and LG/RT Matt Feiler leave via free agency.
For the most part, Pittsburgh elected to stay in-house, resigning tackle Zach Banner to take on the starting RT role while moving Chuks Okorafor who started at RT last season to the blindside. David DeCastro figures to start at RG and 2020 rookie Kevin Dotson has been penciled to start at LG after an impressive showing in limited action last season. Pittsburgh elected to re-sign B.J. Finney after getting released by the Bengals, providing depth and competition at center for last year’s key reserve J.C. Hassenauer.
They also drafted Kendrick Green in the third-round out of the University of Illinois who figures to be converted to a full-time center after playing mostly guard in college with some starts snapping the football.
While this offensive line doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in those in the national media and across the league, I for one have come around on the likes of Dotson and Green (should he win the job Week One) providing that physical presence upfront Pittsburgh has sorely been missing the last few years. After diving further into the tape on Banner, I can say the same as well with his limited play last year and as a key reserve in 2019. Many have forgotten that Banner won the starting RT in training camp over Okorafor last season, but sadly suffered a torn ACL near the end of the first game of the regular season against the New York Giants.
While a limited sample size for sure, I was still impressed with what I saw out of Banner who has been considered “backup caliber”. Here on this clip we see Banner down block on the defensive lineman, getting his outside shoulder turned and walling off the defender to create a natural seal in the run game on the right side. Banner uses his sheer size and power the wash him down the line, clearing him out of the way.
Sure, the play goes for no gain due to poor execution but Feiler and Vance McDonald, but this shows how Banner’s size is a plus as a run blocker.
Another clip here in the same game with Banner facing off with #99 Leonard Williams, former teammate at USC and a talented interior rusher. Banner does a great job of attacking Williams square at the line, using his long arms and size get a good hit on Williams’ outside shoulder, getting him off-balance, and getting underneath his pads to walk him back into the second level of the defense. This is good example to see just how dense and powerful Banner actually is walking back a talented 4-I tech like Williams on this stretch run to the outside.
Defenders will have a tough time winning on drive blocks against Banner, who has already embraced OL Coach Adrian Klemm’s mentality of “running through the defenders face”. Check out this play against the Dolphins in 2019 where Banner takes this poor defender for a ride on his drive block, showing great hand placement inside and good leg drive and he runs the defender five yards downfield and finishes with the suplex to the ground.
Despite being over 340lb, Banner is fairly mobile on the move for a gigantic human being, show the capability to get out in space and kick out defenders to the sideline on outside runs. Here against the Bengals, we see Banner align at TE in the jumbo set but does take on DE #94 Sam Hubbard on the edge, getting a good jump off of the snap and attacks the inside of Hubbard’s chest, knocking him backwards and proceeds to run him out of the play clearly to the echo of the whistle.
If you want to see Banner on the move, watch this jet sweep play to Diontae Johnson to the left side of the line with Banner aligned at LT on the play. He gets out in space and gets the outside shoulder ironically of EDGE Cassius Marsh, trying to get him turned but squares him up as a big hole opens up for Johnson right up the middle. Marsh isn’t the great run defender as documented during his time with Pittsburgh, but seeing Banner move like this in space is encouraging given the zone, West Coast concepts OC Matt Canada figures to run in 2021.
While effort and physicality were lacking with Pittsburgh upfront last season, that won’t be the case with Banner. Here is a great effort play against the Chargers where Banner sees #30 James Conner catch the ball and takes off down the field to try and find someone to block, latching onto the defensive back and proceeds to run him and a teammate downfield after the play is dead. Granted, I do wish he would’ve picked up one of the two defenders that ended up tackling Conner, but this effort to be over 40 yards downfield trying to pick up a block while the rest of the OL stands and watches speaks volumes to the effort and mindset Banner has.
In pass protection, Banner may not be the fleetest of foot when it comes to his movement skills but losing the extra weight since coming to Pittsburgh and working on his mobility as definitely done wonders for him. We see on this play against New York Banner pick up #95 B.J. Hill rushing to the outside, getting good hand placement inside and keeps a sturdy base. However, Ben holds onto the ball too long and keeps dropping back into the depth of the pocket, taking pressure from Williams as Big AL gets walked back, and banner eventually allows Hill around the outside to team up with Williams at the QB. I would like to see Banner seal off Hill better around the outside, but Ben can’t drop back so far and should step up in the pocket if it weren’t for the pressure from Williams. Not the end result you want, but I’m fine with this rep from Banner.
Even when Banner appears beat, his length and size help him win the rep on the edge in pass protection. Case-in-point here in this preseason action against the Buccaneers where Banner is a tad slow in his pass set but manages to run his man around the arc as Josh Dobbs steps up to throw.
Another example here against Arizona while facing talented edge rusher #55 Chandler Jones who does get Banner’s outside shoulder around the edge, but Banner does a great job using Jones’s momentum against him and runs him out of the play to allow Devlin Hodges to get out of the pocket and extend the play. Not great giving up the pressure, but again he keeps his QB clean.
So with Banner, I see a tackle who can be a plus-run blocker and a serviceable pass protector who can only improve with his pass set with more reps and experience in the starting lineup. So, with that being said, what should we come to expect of Banner should he be able to stay healthy and man the RT position for 2021? Honestly, I don’t think it’s out of the question to see similar play out of Banner as we have seen out of current Patriots OT Trent Brown. Brown may have been released from the Raiders due to health concerns and questionable motivation, but he is one of the best run blocking tackles in the league when right and his sheer size and length like Banner make him a chore to work around in pass protection. For comparisons sake, here are the measurables of both players coming out of the NFL Combine (knowing Brown now plays around 380lb and Banner once nearly topped the scales around 400lb).
Arm: 34 7/8”
Hand: 10 3/4”
3 Cone: 8.31
20yd Shuttle: 5.21
Height: 6’8 1/2”
Hand: 10 7/8”
3 Cone: 8.23
20yd Shuttle: 4.78
So, we see that Brown is longer, faster, and notably quicker in the agility drills than Banner, but both players have similar explosive numbers and are just enormous human beings playing the tackle position compared to your traditional 6’5 315lb OT. When you watch their game side-by-side, it is eerily similar as well. Check out these couple clips of Brown with the Raiders where he executes a great down block on the great Chris Jones of Kansas City, eventually getting tripped up on the play from behind.
Or this combo block off to the linebacker against Cincinnati where he takes the backer and runs him over ten yards down the field on the big chunk play. Much like Banner, this movement and ability to work in the second and third levels of the defense for a man of this size in quite impressive.
Is this to say that Zach Banner will perform at the Pro-Bowl level Brown played at times, getting ham a four-year, 66-million-dollar deal from the Raiders in FA? Not exactly, but I do recognize the similarities in play as good run blockers who share the same traits and size to be effective in pass protection. For what it’s worth, Banner has more recently shown a dedication to keep his weight in-check and more of that consistent effort on the field compared to Brown, while probably a better overall athlete, who has dealt with commitment issues to the game and staying focused.
Now Banner was a fourth-round selection in his draft class and Brown was a seventh-round selection, so the pedigree is similar in that regard. Banner flamed out with the Colts and Browns, much like Brown did in San Francisco. However, Brown flourished under the coaching in New England and earned a big deal because of it. Now, Banner will try to do the same and build off of what he has done thus far in Pittsburgh and learn under Coach Klemm with that New England background as he tries to earn that similar big contract.
I understand not every inexperienced Steelers starter can develop into a high-quality, long-term solution, but I do think that Banner is near the top of that list after doing more of a deep dive of where is game is at this moment and the likely step forward he can take with a full season under his belt in 2021.
His style of play fits exactly what Pittsburgh is trying to do upfront, and the likes of young, physical players in Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green along with grizzled veteran DeCastro get me excited as to what this unit will look like next season as well as several years down the road. The aggressiveness and physicality of Chuks still worries me as I hope he can take that step forward as well, but after watching the tape, hearing what he has been saying all offseason, and seeing him host the rest of the offensive line room for a dinner at his house during minicamp, I do think that Banner is in position to make the leap in 2021 as a quality starting option in Pittsburgh at RT.
What are your thoughts on Zach Banner heading into 2021? Do you think he could be the long-term solution at RT, or that Pittsburgh will be looking to fill his position after his two-year deal is up? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!