Last weekend was an incredible weekend for running backs. Nine players ran for over 100 yards—Le’Veon Bell, Jordan Howard, Adrian Peterson, Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, Jay Ajayi, Orleans Darkwa, Todd Gurley, and Mark Ingram.
Week 6 Running Backs
It was obscene. Of course, the rushing leader last week was Bell. The back with the patience of a wild life photographer waited and waited and waited for his first level blocks to be made, and then burst through the Chiefs’ shoddy second level. During all of this, because I’m a hipster doofus who tries not to watch the ball, I was transfixed not by Bell, but by David DeCastro. With Marshal Yanda out for the year, DeCastro now wears the throne as the best guard in the NFL. Starting at 3:05 p.m. Central time last Sunday, he made numerous insane blocks that you rarely see anywhere else.
The great and spectacular plays made by offensive linemen are rarely seen. Unlike players who hog the ball—quarterbacks heaving asteroids down the field, running backs cutting like slalom skiers, and wide receivers who now catch every pass with one hand—blocking isn’t easy to see. Offensive line opinions are formed based on seven second Twitter videos of blocks that squish the defender into gelatinous goop, or whiffs so hilariously bad that they forever stain the player’s name. What DeCastro does needs something better than a seven second highlight. Every game, he’s spectacular.
The staple of the Steelers’ football team is Le’Veon Bell’s patience. Him waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, cutting, flicking past defenders, and emerging free out of the mosh pit is what drives PIttsburgh’s offense. The foundation of their rushing attack is run blockers staying on their blocks. The Steelers’ offensive linemen have to punch the chest and hold. With hands on the chest, they can grab the jersey without getting flagged for ten yards. With hands on the chest, they stick to the block and control the defender.
Here it’s 2nd and 4. Bell picks up eight. Pittsburgh is running an inside zone play. DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey have an ‘Ace’ block. The defensive tackle is playing a ‘3’ technique. At this distance, Pouncey can’t really get over and help unless the tackle stunts inside. On most of these blocks, even on double teams with more of an inside alignment, Pouncey doesn’t really help DeCastro. He nudges and heads to the second level. He knows DeCastro is going to make his block. DeCastro’s ability to block defenders on his own allows his teammates to get to the second level quicker.
At the snap, DeCastro gets immediately in front of the tackle. His hands punch the chest. He’s low. He’s in control. The defender is strangled. As DeCastro wrestles this gator, Bell surveys the field. Bouncing like a grasshopper in a crunchy summer field, Bell waits and waits and hides behind DeCastro multiple times until the door finally opens.
The other great part of DeCastro’s game is his feet. He’s one of the quickest linemen in football. Offenses have the pre-snap advantage because they know the snap count. They control when the play begins. That split-second is a tremendous advantage. DeCastro does it all the time, using it to leave his stance before the defender’s hand is even off the ground.
With feet as quick as his, DeCastro always hits his landmark. On any play where he needs to reach the outside shoulder, outside zone plays especially, he jolts out of his stance, gains ground with each step, and hits the outside shoulder. From there he can easily turn the defender and wall him off from the play. He creates seams in the maze for Bell to crawl his way through.
On this play, DeCastro is forced to reach the defensive tackle, Chris Jones (#95). The tackle is also stunting inside. Not only does Castro have to get his head on the inside of the defender, but he’s having to beat him to the same spot.
He takes a flat slide step to the left.
He then bounces off his right foot and leaves the ground momentarily,
He catches the tackle on his inside shoulder and underneath his chin. Bell is still in line for Splash Mountain and the defender has already been reached.
From this position, DeCastro anchors in the center of the field. He allows Jones to chase up field, but not across his face to the ball. Turning, he does a 180 to create a wall between the defender and Bell.
There are a lot of plays where this block is needed. Tosses where the lineman can’t allow the defender to win outside. Pulls that hit the outside shoulder and pin the defender inside. Outside zone plays that flow naturally in one direction. With Bell’s patience and vision, the outside zone is a play that complements his skills perfectly.
Here the Steelers are driving and almost in the Chiefs’ red zone. DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert have a ‘Deuce’ block. The guard has to hit the inside shoulder, turn the defender inside, give the tackle an easy angle to overtake the block, and then move to the second level.
This is as close as you can get to committing a false start without actually doing it. The ball has moved a microscopic unit of measurement, yet DeCastro has already taken a flat slide step to the left.
Again, he bounces. He has taken three steps and already has his head aimed at the defensive lineman’s inside shoulder. DeCastro has taken three steps by the time the defender takes one.
The amount of inside advantage DeCastro has allows him to curve back to the block. Rather than move the defender straight forward or to the left towards the play, he’s able to force his direction back to the right. As the backside blocker, this is integral. It splits the defense in two to create a cutback. It pushes the defender to the tackle, making his teammate’s life easier.
DeCastro’s head is on the inside shoulder. His hands are on the outside. He’s taking on only half the defender. Since he’s on the outside, he still has a worry-free path to the second level. The defender is stuck sitting and anchoring to try and stop the backwards movement.
The tackle is working to overtake the block. He punches too early and hits the right side of the defender. DeCastro doesn’t scurry to the second level. Instead, he holds the outside and keeps leverage, waiting until Gilbert can get over. This is the blocking version of what Bell does on every run.
From this angle, DeCastro can help and contain the block and still be able to see the second level. Throughout this elongated block, his eyes never leave the space he’s about to occupy in the immediate future.
Once Gilbert is in a good place, DeCastro shoves off and leaves the block. It’s the perfect time. Now Bell is cutting inside and DeCastro is leading the way and directing traffic.
Here’s the same block, but the other way around for DeCastro. He’s the one to overtake the block now. Pouncey uses his shoulder to break the door down. DeCastro slides over to take command. In a flash, both the first and second level are covered. This is one of the fastest double teams I’ve ever seen.
This season the Steelers are averaging 5.86 yards an attempt on runs over the left tackle with Bell carrying the ball. Last year, they averaged 6.05 yards an attempt in the same section of the line. In this same direction, the Steelers also had 5.39 adjusted line yards in 2016 (4th) and 4.78 adjusted line yards this season (8th). This is because the Steelers love to pull DeCastro. They rarely pull with right guard, Ramon Foster. Counter plays are run to the left. It gets DeCastro out of his stance, into space, leading the way, and turning bones to fireworks. The defense flows in unison that direction, and then Bell cuts inside behind the puller’s blocks en route to lofty gains.
Here the Steelers are running counter to the left. DeCastro is pulling to kick out the outside linebacker. The fullback, Roosevelt Nix (#45), is leading the way up field to the alley defender. On the play side, there are two double teams. One is going to the safety, the other to the play side inside linebacker.
DeCastro lurches low to explode out of his stance right when the ball is snapped.
The key to pulling is the first step has to gain ground. If the blocker wastes the step, he’s either going to get to the block too late or the defender is going to have moved a longer distance and can provide a greater collision when the block is made, making it harder to drive the defender out of the hole. Most of the time, a stalemate is a loss when pulling. Lazy steps lead to ball carriers suffocating in a claustrophobic backfield.
DeCastro comes tight off of Pouncey’s down block.
Dee Ford comes at an angle off the edge.
He lowers his shoulder to hit DeCastro and gets rocked.
After crushing Ford, DeCastro keeps his feet moving and drives the outside linebacker out of the hole. The entire play side has walled off the line of scrimmage. Bell has a fullback leading the way and a 3 a.m. road to drive through after cutting behind DeCastro’s block.
The Steelers are one of the rare teams in the NFL that runs the counter as a staple of their offense. Most teams prefer safer plays like zone, and if they choose to pull, they’ll run power. Defenses are too fast to be able to consistently run at like this. DeCastro is just so quick, and gets off the ball so fast, that he’s still able to churn out this block successfully time and time again.
On another counter play later in the game, DeCastro made an OMG block that left safety Daniel Sorensen splayed out like a vivisection. DeCastro is out in space. He comes tight around the down block. Sorenson is running up the field to pursue Bell, and at a minimum, force Bell back inside to the teeth of the defense.
When Sorenson realizes who’s coming, he turns his shoulders away from DeCastro.
At this angle, Sorenson has no power. DeCastro explodes into his side and lifts him up and away.
There’s so many different ways the Steelers run this play. They can pull DeCastro with a tight end, a fullback, a player aligned behind the line of scrimmage as a flex-wing, or even the center. With the quickness on the interior between DeCastro and Pouncey, the Steelers run a counter play that is rarely seen.
These same attributes—the hands, the feet, the jump off the snap, the strength—all work in unison during pass blocking, too. Chris Jones, Kansas City’s defensive end in the 3-4, and defensive tackle in nickel and dime sub packages, has become one of the NFL’s premier interior rushers this season. Against DeCastro, he offered absolutely nothing as a pass rusher. Even on plays when Jones had the immediate advantage, his rush was snuffed out like two damp fingers.
On third down in the red zone, the Steelers are looking to try to score with a Ben Roethlisberger throw. DeCastro has Jones all to himself. As a ‘3’ technique on his outside shoulder, DeCastro does not want to get beat outside. He takes a slide step over and attacks Jones.
Jones plants on his left foot after the first step and shoots the inside gap.
In a rare instance, Jones has his head on DeCastro’s shoulder and is the one with the head placement advantage.
But because DeCastro’s hands are inside, he’s still able to control the block. He quickly shuffles over and shoves Jones inside. This prevents Jones from being able to escape the block, or to be able to turn DeCastro to get a path to the quarterback.
Later in the game, DeCastro ended up in the same situation. He had Jones to himself on his outside shoulder. Rather than take a drop step and give the defender space, the most precious commodity on inside rushes, DeCastro creates his own advantage.
He again takes a slide step to the right to cover up Jones.
It’s all a ploy. He fakes the outside pass set to get Jones to cut inside again. DeCastro takes one step left, opens his chest, and sits. He waits for Jones to react and then quickly bounces inside to get in front of him. This is the type of thing future Hall of Fame players like Joe Thomas do.
He’s now centered up with the rusher. The block is won. Big Ben has plenty of time to complete an absurd tip-to-himself touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.
When the pass block call goes his directon, DeCastro is great at blocking the ‘B’ gap. “Helpful” is the best word to describe DeCastro. He easily and correctly passes stunting linemen to his teammates. He doesn’t overextend or focus on departing players. He maintains constant gap control. It leads to plays like this, where he affects three different rushers, all while keeping his eyes free and his shoulders square.
The ball is where our eyes go. We are simple animals. Last weekend, our eyes followed great running backs churning through defenses with strength and speed. Yet among the flash, the glit, and the glam were performances just as spectacular, turned in by players just as spectacular. Everything is made, and forever will be, for special players like Bell who can do things with the ball nobody has really ever seen before. At the same time, David DeCastro is doing the same thing in a more violent way.