If you don’t know already, I was thrilled to hear the news of James Daniels signing in Pittsburgh. The #1 guy on my free agency wishlist, I’ve already talked about his game there and you should click that link and read my pre-free agency thoughts there.
But Daniels’ actually signing is worthy of a full article dedicated to it. I’ll break this article down into three parts: evaluating his run blocking, pass protection, and why he fits what new o-line coach Pat Meyer values. Let’s dig in.
James Daniels’ Run Blocking
Daniels is not the most physically-imposing presence at around 310 pounds. He lacks the thick lower half of other guards who were on the market like the 49ers’ Laken Tomlinson. Daniels looks better suited for a zone-blocking system that gets guys on the move. He’s a plus athlete with good snap off the ball that is able to reach and cutoff on the backside of blocks. He does a nice job setting his hips as well, creating lanes for the running back.
While Daniels isn’t the biggest guy, his length and power still stick out. He has long, nearly 34 inch arms, and he runs his feet on contact, showing the ability to uncoil his hips and create movement at the point of attack. He has the torque to drive defenders off the ball and is an asset on combo blocks common with inside zone runs. Overall, he creates movement in the run game.
Some cut-ups of what I’m talking about. In all the examples of this article, Daniels is the RG, #68.
Overall, he is a balanced, coordinated blocker who is rarely on the ground. He plays with a nasty, physical demeanor and looks to finish his blocks. Daniels enjoys putting defenders into the ground and will fit well into the culture the Steelers are trying to create of athletic, ill-tempered (in the best possible way) dudes as the building blocks of their offensive line.
I didn’t see too many negatives with him as a run blocker. He is quick and able to reach the second-level, working to linebackers in space. But he struggles to consistently stick on contact, often playing with forward lean on his punch and falling off. He can also work on his angles, too, with linebackers being able to duck under/through him, though it can be hard to hit those guys perfectly in space.
Daniels is also an effective puller. He didn’t do it too often on the tape I watched, the Bears had more of a zone-based run game, asking their back to pick the lane, but Daniels can square pull and throw blocks out in space. Daniels is an impressive run-blocker and will help improve things up front, something the Steelers have desperately needed the last two seasons.
James Daniels’ Pass Blocking
Daniels is a hand-fighter who works hard to keep his base. Like in the run game, he’s coordinated and rarely gets too tall or doubles over. He bends at the waist and knees and is able to mirror quicker pass rushes while also showing the grip strength to lock onto the block.
In the first example of this multi-clip cutup, watch him snatch and trap the 3T and knock him off-balanced. Really good rep.
Daniels is a good-IQ player with plus stunt recognition and ability to pass off/pick up defenders as they crash and loop. Pittsburgh was simply overwhelmed by interior/Mug blitzes last season so hopefully Daniels – along with the rest of this line being another year experienced and wiser – will help out there too.
He can be overwhelmed by bull and power rushes. He isn’t the most naturally strong player in the world and his overall lack of bulk does hurt him here. Power rushers are going to be more of a problem for him than quicker, finesse rushes and rushers.
James Daniels’ Scheme Fit
I dedicated a little less above to Daniels’ in pass protection because I wanted to talk about it more here. Weeks ago, I went through all of new o-line coach Pat Meyer’s ideals and overall philosophy of pass protection. If you haven’t read it or want a refresher, check it out by clicking that link.
Much of what Meyer preaches is what I saw Daniels do on tape. In two key areas. One, his aggressive nature in his pass sets and two, his ability to “hop step” against those bull rushes he (and a lot of linemen) struggle against.
As I wrote in that linked article, the #1 principle Meyer preaches is to be aggressive. Every chance you get, be aggressive. And when you make a mistake, Meyer says, go be more aggressive. That’s not just cliched coach-speak of “hit someone” but it specifically points to how you set a pass rusher. Meyer has and will in Pittsburgh encourage his guys to take shorter sets in the pass game when they’re able to. As he tells it, the tackles set the width of the pocket, the interior linemen set its depth. Meaning, don’t give ground if you don’t have to.
Let me put it to the tape. Watch Daniels’ sets in these clips. Not giving ground, being the attacker when the center is sliding away. When he’s 1v1 and covered up with a defender “on his body,” a term Meyer uses, Daniels shows the desire to be the aggressor and make initial contact. Meyer calls it being the first to “make significant contact.” He believes if a lineman can do that, he’ll win just about every single rep.
I’m sure some of what we’re seeing here from Daniels is what he was taught in Chicago. But he has the talent to do it and those teachings will carry over well in Pittsburgh.
In that Meyer clinic I went over, he went through a couple scenarios where the lineman is losing. Because it won’t always go perfect for a lineman, that’s just the nature of the best. Meyer outlined what players should do if they are getting bullrushed into the pocket. Like a lot of coaches, Meyer teaches the “hop step,” that you can see below with the Chargers’ left tackle.
Meyer’s quip is to “hop, hop, stop” because it often takes two hops to stall out a bull rush. An initial hop to reset yourself and a second to actually stop the rush. But if you can stop it in one, even better. The pocket won’t be as collapsed.
Daniels shows the same effective technique on tape. And there were times I watched him stall a bull rush in just one hop, showing the functional strength that he has. Check it out.
Obviously, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II are the decision-makers here. They are the ones who got Daniels’ signed. But I think Meyer’s philosophy made this an even better fit than Daniels’ impressive standalone game. He’s a good talent playing his best football while still improving and checks the boxes Meyer looks for: long, athletic, aggressive.
With the signing, Daniels instantly becomes the Steelers’ best offensive lineman. The goal and hope will be for other young guys to grow and develop: Dan Moore, Kevin Dotson, and Kendrick Greene (even if he doesn’t end up a starter). Pittsburgh’s line still has work to do. Those young guys must develop and the unit has to play as a collective five, a sum of its parts, something that was an issue last season given their inexperience to the league and to the team.
But Daniels is a great signing for a reasonable amount of money. It’s the big swing I hoped the team would take.