Before there were multimillion-dollar contracts, Steelers offensive linemen routinely chopped down their teammates with cut blocks in training camp. Under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, it was commonplace to witness a lineman placing his shoulder and helmet low against a defensive lineman or linebacker and taking out his legs to prevent him from making a play. Noll knew the best way to prepare his players was through repetition, and the only way to do that was in practice.
That all went away once NFL owners realized there was no sense in putting their highly paid players in danger for the sake of practice. But the financially motivated decision from owners has made life difficult for offensive linemen, who continue to be asked to cut defenders in games.
Just ask right guard David DeCastro, whose poorly executed cut block in the opener against Tennessee last season resulted in him knocking out teammate Maurkice Pouncey for the season.
The Steelers did not practice cut blocking once a year ago at camp under former line coach Jack Bicknell. New offensive line coach Mike Munchak is not making the same mistake. He will have his linemen go through cut-blocking drills during camp that could prevent another catastrophic injury.
“It’s helpful,” DeCastro said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
The linemen won’t be cutting their teammates, but Munchak has a few drills that will give his linemen a better sense of how to go about executing the block.
“It’s hard to simulate,” Munchak said. “There is no doubt about that. We’ll do things where we pick up towels. We’ll cut block on air. We have a landing platform like they use for special teams when they try to block a punt. Somewhere in camp, we’ll do some of that. We won’t spend a lot of time on it. That’s why you’re smart when you do it.”
But, in the end, the players are going to have to execute the block without the benefit of live repetition. The first opportunity the Steelers will have to execute a cut block for real is the Aug. 9 preseason opener against the New York Giants.
That makes team drills in training camp an interesting exercise for the offensive and defensive linemen. Fans might see offensive linemen grabbing defensive linemen in what appears to be an obvious holding penalty, but they are merely doing that to alert them that they would have been cut had it been a real game.
“I would give an analogy to when a defensive back tries to line up a receiver in practice,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “Instead of KO’ing him, he’s just putting himself in a position to do so. That’s kind of what we have to do as offensive linemen. We have to put ourselves in position to cut. We can’t cut in practice, but, in a game, we have to be in the correct position, take the proper angles and proper steps so when it comes to the games we’re able to execute with the same type of violence. Not being able to practice it, we have to make sure our footwork is right, our hat placement is right and make sure the angles are right to make the cut.”
The Steelers stopped running the outside zone-blocking scheme last year after Pouncey was injured and the offensive linemen were not asked to execute many cut blocks. But Munchak is an advocate of the outside zone and cutting is a necessary part of that scheme on occasions.
DeCastro knows that. And he knows all eyes will be on him the first time he has to execute a cut block.
He worries some about executing the block, but said he won’t fully get over what happened last year until he does it again.
“Of course, there is some trepidation,” DeCastro said. “But it’s football. You have to continue on and learn from it. It’s a tough way to learn, but there is nothing else you can do but learn from it.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.