After RT Chukwuma Okorafor suffered a concussion in Pittsburgh’s Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, backup tackle Joe Haeg was asked to step in and start against the Green Bay Packers Sunday in Lambeau Field. When Haeg was signed this offseason, it was projected by many that he would primarily serve as the backup/swing tackle at either spot should the starter go down as well as play the jumbo TE role in Pittsburgh’s heavy personnel that Zach Banner made famous when he first arrived with the team. With rookie fourth-round selection Dan Moore Jr. playing well in the preseason, he usurped Haeg on the depth chart and claimed the starting spot when Banner was placed on IR to start the season.
Haeg played a fair number of snaps after Okorafor was removed from the game the week prior, but this contest against Green Bay would be his first true start to the season. All things considered, Haeg represented himself well on the right side of the offensive line, holding his own in pass protection and arguably was the most effective run blocker upfront for the Steelers on the day. Alex Kozora often mentioned during training camp that Haeg may be the best run blocking tackle currently on the roster, and after seeing the evident improvement on Sunday, that statement should hold some validity.
On this play early in the game, Haeg is asked to climb to the second level and pick up the middle linebacker. He takes a great angle to the defender on the snap, squaring him up and knocking him back away from the play and into the rest of the trash by the LOS. RB #22 Najee Harris gets a modest game on the play, but as you can see near the end of the run, a wide gap opens to the left between Haeg and #69 Kevin Dotson. Sure, it would be difficult for Harris to locate this hole, but should he notice the opening and jump cut to the left, he would have tons of green grass in front of him.
Here is another run play later in the drive where Haeg is asked to cross the face of DE #94 Dean Lowery and seal him off for Harris to hit the right-side B-gap. Haeg does a good job getting position off the snap, working his feet to angle Lowry away from the ball with good hand placement inside his chest. However, Haeg fails to finish the block by driving Lowry’s inside shoulder off to complete the seal, allowing Lowry to get across his face and get a hand on Harris as the rest of the defense converges to bring him down.
Haeg wasn’t dazzling in the run game by any means, but he was undoubtedly better than anything Okorafor did in the first three contests to start the season. Pittsburgh had their best day on the ground this season against Green Bay, and Haeg played a big part of that. The key thing that sticks out about Haeg’s play as a run blocker is his effort and drive off the ball. While Okorafor tends to be more complacent as a run blocker, notably lacking that mean streak that I have highlighted dating back to the offseason, Haeg offers more physicality at the position, running his feet on contact and can displace defenders off the ball to get a push forward.
In terms of pass protection, Haeg represented himself well there as well. Haeg doesn’t possess the athleticism that Okorafor or Moore have from a quick-twitch, explosiveness perspective, but he is steady as a blocker, being in good position to engage pass rushers should he not get beat with speed around the edge. Check out this rep on the first drive of the game where Haeg engages #52 Rashan Gary coming off the edge, squaring him up, anchoring in to stall the rush, and gets good hand placement inside his chest to neutralize the rush.
On the TD pass a few plays later from Ben to #18 Diontae Johnson, we see Haeg again take on Gary coming off the right side, initially aiding #51 Trai Tuner by getting a chip in on #97 Kenny Clark before going out to keep Gary from getting to the QB. His feet noticeably aren’t that quick as Gary works to get the corner, but Haeg does just enough to make him run around the arc, giving Ben enough time to find Johnson deep for the score.
Like I mentioned above, Haeg isn’t a dancing ballerina when it comes to his feet and fluidity in pass protection. He does appear stiff, and his vertical pass set isn’t as urgent as other physical specimens at the position. However, Haeg plays under control in his pass set, more often than not finding himself in good position to neutralize the rush. Here on the sack fumble on Roethlisberger, we see Haeg engage #91 Preston Smith coming off the edge from the Wide-9. Haeg does a great job establishing the depth of the pocket and keeps Smith from getting around his outside shoulder. Smith does counter inside with his right arm and gets on the ball, so Haeg could do better to fight the counter here.
We do see Haeg adjust later in the game again facing Smith coming off the edge as a wide standup pass rusher. Haeg plays with good tempo coming out of his stance and notices Smith looking to swim over his inside shoulder inside and successfully get underneath him and jacks him up into the air to stall his rush and allow Ben to find Harris for the catch-and-run opportunity.
For being “athletically limited” as a pass protector, Haeg provided some of the best pass protection we have seen from the tackle spot this season. Not only was he able to anchor in against power and handle the counter inside, but he also showed technique to keep pass rushers from winning with speed around the edge. This play demonstrates that as Haeg takes on #47 Chauncey Rivers sprinting to the corner. Rivers hits Haeg with a long arm and then goes for the slap/rip combo, but Haeg takes Rivers inside shoulder and runs him out of the play, giving Ben a clean pocket to find #13 James Washington breaking open for the first down.
Overall, I came away very pleased with Haeg’s play Sunday against Green Bay. My fellow Steelers Depot contributor Matthew Marczi proposed the question as to whether Haeg should be given the chance to start at RT going forward in his article, and I am honestly all for it. While Haeg lacks the athletic upside of Okorafor, he is far more consistent as a pass blocker and generates a better push upfront as a run blocker, getting the offensive line an identity to pounding the rock with bell cow back Najee Harris. Given the recent performances by Ben Roethlisberger, creating an identity on the ground would best suit Pittsburgh’s current situation on offense, and Haeg flat-out is better in this area than Chuks right now.
It remains to be seen when Zach Banner will be able to return and be activated off the IR, let alone get into game shape and be able to execute at a high level. Personally, it would be wise for Haeg to man the RT spot until Banner proves he is ready to claim that RT spot. While saying this, Haeg may struggle with Von Miller and the Denver Broncos pass rush this weekend due to his lack of athleticism to protect the edge but given the inconsistencies with Okorafor and the recent play of Haeg, I would be all for Haeg starting at RT going forward until he either loses the spot himself, or one of the projected starters does enough to unseat him.
What are your thoughts on Joe Haeg’s performance against the Packers? Do you think he is currently the best option at RT, or that the team should go back to Okorafor or plug in Banner as soon as this week? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!