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Zach Fulton and LDT: Goats or scapegoats?

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I want to make a quick disclaimer: I hate the idea of revisiting the Steelers “game” (I can’t bring myself to not use quotation marks there. That was no game, as game implies some kind of contest). Hate it. Don’t want to talk about it. Let’s pretend it never happened. Bury it and move on.

Unfortunately for me, the job sometimes involves talking about unpleasant things. Particularly where, as now, there’s a bit of a mystery to uncover.

Since I wrote about Alex Smith’s rough time against Pittsburgh, I’ve had many people tell me that the guard play against the Steelers was a major reason for our offensive woes, including Smith’s poor play. Since I’m not a guy who can leave a stone unturned, I thought I’d take a look at LDT and Zach Fulton to see how they did.

Going in, my initial impression of the game was that both played poorly. However, the question I’m seeking to answer is if they were so bad as to take primary blame for the offense’s struggles as some suggest.

If you don’t know how I grade offensive linemen, I watch every snap on all-22 and chart wins, losses, and neutral plays. Here is a more detailed explanation. Let’s look at some numbers and talk about the film of each, then reach an overall conclusion about whether the guards are as big a problem as some of the other issues the offense is having.

LDT

Pass Block Wins- 20

Pass Block Losses- 6

Run Block Wins- 7

Run Block Losses- 4

Neutral Snaps- 39

Win Percentage- 35.5%

Loss Percentage- 13.2%

Sacks/Hits/Pressures allowed- 3 pressures

LDT did not have a good game against the Steelers. Remember, this was his first game back after a high ankle sprain sidelined him for several weeks. During preseason and against San Diego, LDT played quite well.

Against the Steelers, though, LDT had a few more “losses” than I’m comfortable with. He wasn’t as good as he’s been as a run blocker, and struggled to get to his spot a few times. On other snaps he was on the spot, so I don’t believe it was an issue of his ankle still bothering him. I think (and I could be wrong here) that he was simply shaking off some rust.

LDT also struggled with his anchor at times against the Steelers, which is unusual. Generally he’s a strong guy who doesn’t get bull rushed too often. However, against PIT, for whatever reason, he had multiple snaps where his power failed him.

It’s easy to look at LDT’s loss percentage and be afraid that we’re back to last season with him, but his film was better than it was last year (at least in most games) in that his losses weren’t as quick as they were in 2015, and they were rarely related to poor technique (which was almost always why he got beat last year).

Overall, LDT looked like a guy who hadn’t played in a few weeks and was a step slow, and was below what I’d call “average” for a guard. However, his play wasn’t as rough as what the Chiefs had last season, and he generally did his job well enough to keep from hurting the offense (high praise, I know). He did make a few mistakes with stunts that were similar to what we saw last year, but that definitely tightened up as the game went along (as did his overall play).

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing we see LDT back to what he was prior to the injury this season now that he’s got a week of action under his belt. As it was, LDT was not good, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as the narrative I’ve seen about the guards.

Zach Fulton

Pass Block Wins- 17

Pass Block Losses- 7

Run Block Wins- 5

Run Block Losses- 2

Neutral Snaps- 45

Win Percentage- 28.9%

Loss Percentage- 11.8%

Sacks/Hits/Pressures allowed- 3 pressures, 2 sacks

Similar to LDT, Fulton didn’t play particularly well against the Steelers. Statistically (at least by the “stats” I use) he had 1 fewer loss than LDT, which results in a lower loss percentage. With that stat, even one play matters, so normally that would be an indicator that Fulton had the superior overall game.

However, Fulton’s losses ended up being more costly, particularly in pass protection. As you can see, of Fulton’s 7 losses, 5 ended up as a pressure or a sack. Some of that is luck, but some of that is a product of Fulton’s losses being a tad quicker than LDT’s (which is a reversal of what we saw last season).

Fulton, unlike LDT, looked a lot like the guy we saw last season: a big, strong player who struggles when asked to move in space and occasionally will get caught sleeping on a blitz or a stunt. However, he’s also a guy who occasionally just flatten a defender, which is fun to watch.

Fulton is who he is at this point: a not-terrible guard who is a bit over his head as a starter. His lack of footspeed and overall movement is very, very noticeable next to Fisher, Morse, LDT and Schwartz, all of whom move significantly better than he does in space. He’s more at him at center, where his power comes into play more and his lack of athleticism comes into play less.

All that said, Fulton wasn’t awful against the Steelers. He wasn’t good, but he was within spitting distance of passable (again, not very high praise).

The overall takeaway? Both LDT and Fulton were subpar against the Steelers, but the idea that they were so abysmal that they were the primary issue for the offense just doesn’t hold up upon examination. Reid and Smith remain the primary culprits for the offense’s struggles. Hopefully we see something better against the Raiders.