The Pittsburgh Steelers need to rebuild their offensive front, and that should start with Landon Dickerson.
Recent reports indicate that Maurkice Pouncey is set to retire after a stellar eleven-year career with the Steelers. Pittsburgh was thin up front even before the news about Pouncey, leading pundits to speculate they would go heavy on offensive linemen in the upcoming draft. Now, with Pouncey likely gone, their need to address the unit is dire.
The Steelers have the 24th and 55th selections in the first two rounds. It would seems certain they will use one of those picks, and perhaps both, to bolster the line. An ideal starting point would be to acquire Alabama center Landon Dickerson, whose size, physical style of play, position-versatility (he can play guard as well) and much-lauded leadership qualities would serve as a building-block upon which the Steelers could reconstruct their front.
This article looks at Dickerson’s strengths and weaknesses, evaluates his fit in Pittsburgh and speculates on what it will take for the Steelers to acquire him.
Dickerson is huge at 6’6-330 pounds and uses that size to bully his opponents. He was PFF’s top-graded run-blocking center in the country in 2020 as well as being a semi-finalist for the Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the nation’s best lineman. At Alabama, he blocked in a zone and gap scheme that is similar to the one new offensive coordinator Matt Canada will likely use in Pittsburgh. He is strong enough to move defensive tackles off the ball and agile enough to gain horizontal leverage on defenders on reach blocks and sweep plays. We see examples of both of these traits in the GIFs below.
First, let’s look at Dickerson’s lateral movement. This is an outside zone play from Alabama’s contest at Missouri this past season. Dickerson’s job is to reach the play-side shoulder of the defensive lineman to his right. Asking a center to snap the football and then get lateral quickly enough to cut off a defender who has outside leverage on him is no easy task. But Dickerson, using a quick first step, a solid punch to turn the defender and then good footwork to pin him inside, does so easily. His block provides running back Najee Harris (another potential Steelers’ draft target) an ample seam through which to run.
Here’s Dickerson blocking the wide zone concept again, this time with the back in pistol formation. Reaching to his left, he again gains outside leverage on a 3-tech defender, wheels his hips and pins him. The 3-tech is pinching to the A-gap, which helps Dickerson overtake him. But the thing that benefits him most is how he never stops moving his feet. That is a common element of Dickerson’s film. His feet stay active from snap to whistle. He finishes his blocks with his hands on his defender, too, faithfully executing two of the commandments of line play: always move your feet, and finish with a shove.
Here’s a clip from the Citrus Bowl against Michigan after the 2019 season. This time, Dickerson gets help from the left guard, who stays on the defensive tackle long enough to allow Dickerson to take over before climbing to block the linebacker. I like how Dickerson gets hip-to-hip with the guard to prevent penetration. Dickerson then finishes the block by again working his hips into the hole and pinning the tackle to the turf.
Here, Dickerson is in the opposite role. He is the one who passes off the down lineman before climbing to block the linebacker. Dickerson shows good agility to get to the backer and then washes him out of the hole once he does.
Dickerson is a strong gap-blocker, too. Gap blocks are those where the center blocks away from the play, either to dig out a 1-tech or work flat to seal a 3 or 5-tech. On this play, Alabama runs the counter-gap scheme we’ve seen the Steelers use countless times over the years, where the backside guard pulls to kick out the playside edge defender and a second puller, usually an H-back or tight end, serves as the lead blocker for the back.
The center’s job on counter-gap is to cover up the first down lineman to the backside of the play. It’s a key block because counter-gap takes time to develop and can be killed by backside penetration. Dickerson has to communicate with the left offensive tackle here on how to handle Michigan’s end and backside linebacker. Dickerson will seal the B-gap while the tackle will slam inside before hinging back out to block the edge. Michigan tries to create confusion by spiking the end inside and looping the backer over top of him. But the OT does a nice job helping slow the end until Dickerson can take over, then works back outside to the backer. Dickerson, meanwhile, moves the end out of the hole, ensuring there is no penetration.
As to whether Dickerson can move defenders in straight mano-a-mano situations, I’ll let this clip do the talking:
Did I mention he finishes blocks?
The only real question about Dickerson as a run-blocker is whether, if he had to play guard, he could pull. I watched all of Alabama’s offensive plays in four games from 2019-2020 and did not see him pull once. That should not disqualify Dickerson as a prospect. Dickerson won’t move in space like Pouncey but he’s hardly a statue. Kevin Dotson, Pittsburgh’s fourth-round draft pick in 2020, is not known as a great puller for a guard. Yet Dotson was perhaps the team’s most effective run-blocker in 2020. If Pittsburgh is to rebuild their run game, adding physical blockers up front is more important than having agile players like Pouncey.
Dickerson is solid in pass protection too. Below we see him blocking a bootleg off of the wide zone play we examined above. Watch how well Dickerson sells the outside zone fake, keeping his pads low and moving his feet as though it’s a run block. He even finishes the play by shoving a Michigan defender to the ground. This is great technique on his part and displays his signature physical style of play.
Dickerson is adept and handling twists and stunts as well. Below, Missouri runs a double twist where their tackles and ends exchange gaps on both sides of the ball. This is designed to get the center or guards to chase the tackles, opening a gap for the end. Dickerson does not take the bait. He stays disciplined, waits for the end to loop inside and flattens him upon arrival:
As far as bull-rushers go, good luck. The only hope a defender has of successfully bull-rushing Dickerson is to get under his pads, gain leverage and drive him into the quarterback. Dickerson plays with good hand technique, however, which makes getting under him difficult. And at 6’6-330, few players have the strength to over-power him. Having the center deposited into the lap of the quarterback is not an issue with Dickerson.
The biggest weakness in Dickerson’s game is that, on occasion, he has a tendency to play with too much weight forward, which can put him off-balance. For example, in Alabama’s 2019 game against LSU, Dickerson came out of his stance on this inside zone play with his head down and his weight forward. This allowed LSU’s 1-tech to work over top of him, play off the block and stuff the running back:
There aren’t too many examples of these types of mechanical flaws, however. When Dickerson does make a mistake, it’s usually because he’s overly-aggressive. That is fixable. It’s much easier for a coach to harness a player’s aggression and redirect it then to have to find a way to summon it into existence.
The real question with Dickerson involves his health. He suffered a season-ending injury in the SEC championship game against Florida and missed Alabama’s playoff wins over Notre Dame and Ohio State. Dickerson tore ligaments in his knee and his rehabilitation will likely delay his preparedness. In the short term, it may prohibit him from becoming a day-one starter. In the long run, there are durability concerns. The Steelers will need to be confident in Dickerson’s medical report to pull the trigger on him in the draft.
With Pouncey leaving, Dickerson’s leadership qualities make him extremely attractive. He was beloved by his teammates at Alabama, The scene at the end of their championship game win versus Ohio State, when Nick Saban sent him onto the field to snap for the final kneel-down, spoke volumes about what he meant to them:
Dickerson is also an excellent communicator. Many of the clips above show Dickerson working with his teammates to execute combination blocks that require great timing. Offensive lines are about communication and cohesiveness as much as they are about strength and physicality. With Pouncey gone, the line in Pittsburgh will need a communicator who is also an alpha-type blocker. Dickerson can fill both of those roles.
As far as his scheme-fit is concerned, it is practically ideal. Under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Alabama ran many of the pre-snap motion and pocket movement schemes that Canada is expected to implement in Pittsburgh. His familiarity with these concepts should minimize his learning curve.
Finally, the Steelers need an established player who can potentially step in as a rookie and make an impact. Drafting a project in the Chuks Okorafor mold would be a mistake. The Steelers need a polished product. With Dickerson, they’d have one.
What will it take to get him?
The knee injury could perhaps work in Pittsburgh’s favor, as it may scare off enough teams for the Steelers to nab him with their 2nd pick at #55. More likely, he will go in the 35-50 range, which means they may have to move up to get him. Perhaps, if Creed Humphrey, the draft’s other highly-rated center, is still on the board, they will stand pat. Humphrey, a team captain at Oklahoma, possesses many of the same strengths as Dickerson (great size, position versatility, high football IQ). He would be a nice consolation prize. Humphrey is not the mauler Dickerson is, however. That, for me, separates the two since I think the Steelers badly need to become more physical up front.
The Steelers have options if they need to trade up. They could move down in round one if they feel confident they can select a valued player a few slots later. This would allow them to acquire some extra draft capital to then use to move up in round two to get Dickerson. Or, if as expected, they receive compensatory picks for losing Javon Hargrave and Sean Davis to free agency in 2020, they could include one of those in a deal to move up. A player of Dickerson’s pedigree is worth being aggressive for at such a crucial position.
There is some risk involved given Dickerson’s injury history. But his upside is huge. Adding Dickerson would go a long way towards rebuilding a struggling offensive line. If I were Kevin Colbert, I’d find a way to acquire him.