By Marvin Loyal. What is he? That’s the question the Pittsburgh Steelers must answer. And they could respond in a dozen different ways.

Leal was recruited as a tweener, somewhere between a running back and an inside player. One year into his professional career and that hasn’t changed. Initially, the Steelers planned to increase it and they did, get your weight over 300 pounds in summer. In the preseason, he logged 91 snaps, all as a down lineman, and more than 26% of his snaps came on Pittsburgh’s base 3-4 defense. It was a similar story in Week 1, all 16 hand-down snaps, though 15 of them came in sub-packs.

The exception was a sign of things to come. Pittsburgh threw their 3-3-5 package once in that Bengals game after Watt got hurt, though Leal was a second-hand finisher on the play.

For Week 2, the Steelers put that plan into more extensive action. A 3-3-5 look with Leal at linebacker, essentially the #3 OLB rotating, especially against heavy guys. For the remainder of the season, the Steelers traded him off and presumably, also based on appearances, had him keep the weight down.

And if you really want to compare/contrast their size, check this out. This is what it looked like week 1. This is what it looked like week 18. Yes, I would say that he lost weight. And understandably so.

Despite playing fewer than 200 total defensive snaps, by the end of the year, he lined up all over the field. According to our charts, he logged time at seven different positions: LDE, LDT, LOLB, RDT, RDT, ROLB and even inside linebacker, the latter a special off-the-ball blitz package set for the Bills game, run three times. .

During his rookie year, 37.4% of his snaps were spent standing up. Although he was still tagged as a defensive lineman, he wasn’t used like the others. He was on his feet, even occasionally dropping into coverage, and he was allergic to the Steelers’ point guard. Just 15.7% of his snaps came in Pittsburgh’s base 3-4/3-5 grouping. Hears was part of the 4-4 defense Pittsburgh relied on for the past four weeks, but even then, he worked further from center at defensive end, not tackle.

In general, Leal was not used like Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Chris Wormley and the rest. Only 52 of his snaps, 30.4%, came as an interior lineman, lining up LDT or RDT. And when he lined up there, it often came in clear third-down pass rush situations.

That’s a lot of numbers, I know, but here’s the bottom line. Leal was not used as a defensive lineman. He was a great outside linebacker, taking advantage of his athleticism and hot engine, and occasionally kicked inside as a secondary pass-rusher. Given the fact that he likely lost weight to play that hybrid role, it was the right and smart move.

But what happens this offseason? The team needs to figure out what to do with Leal. Still young and raw, and not taking a deep dive his entire rookie season, these are the best traits about him.

– Athletics
– Engine
– Active/energetic hands
– Toolsy to be able to win in multiple ways as a pass rusher

And this is what you need to work on.

– Anchoring against the inside run
– Find a quick “go to” pass movement
– Building your rush pass plan
– Expiration (if what Chris Wormley says is any indication)

And that’s how I see it. Leal will never be Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi or Chris Wormley. He doesn’t have the body type or strength to hit inside, double-teaming against centers and guards all day. Yes, the Steelers have changed their style up front and open up more gaps and drives than they used to, but Leal will never be a titan against the run. He is not what he did in college. Texas A&M moved him, but he played on the edge. Leal is a space player, he’s pound-for-pound an impressive athlete, and he’s an interesting fit as a “big” outside linebacker instead of a small defensive lineman.

If this had happened 10 years ago, playing EDGE in Pittsburgh probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Steelers used to drop a ton to their outside linebackers. Despite the great threats from the edge, James Harrison and company would spend a lot of time backing down. Some of it was a byproduct of Dick LeBeau’s Fire Zone system, creatively running five and dropping six, three under, three deep, to create chaos. Even in TJ Watt’s rookie season, he fell above age 37% of the time. Today? Not even close. Last year, he went down 10.5% of the time. This year? Even lower, 5.6% of his passing plays. Pittsburgh took notice. These guys are going forward, not backward. They get paid big bucks to sack the quarterback, not fall into a hook zone, and make a six-yard tackle.

In Pittsburgh, the big, strong outside linebackers win. Not low speed guys. Greg Lloyd. Joey Porter. James Harrison. LaMarr Woodley (before he was *too* big). Bud Dupree. T. J. Watt. Alex Highsmith. No one in that group skipped leg day. Just like big guards always work best for the Steelers, the same is true for EDGE. You saw him with Malik Reed. Too small, not strong enough to play the race. At the end of the year, he was inactive.

Leal will be one of the biggest 3-4 running backs in the game. With a similar size to Dupree, he can be a matchup nightmare against tight ends similar to the impact the front of the team has when Cam Heyward takes on one of them. Leal lacks some foot speed to defend the perimeter, losing weight and honing the position will help with that, but he could be a solid run defender and No. 3 outside linebacker. He’s built like Mike Vrabel, a big guy and an A+ athlete who hauled in a couple of touchdowns in his time (as a Patriot, not a Steeler) as a goal-line tight end. Loyal is a modern version.

I don’t know Pittsburgh’s plan for him. But if you asked me, this is my process and, frankly, it’s pretty much the same thing the Steelers did with him this year. A rotating OLB behind TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith with the ability to kick inside like a three-tech pass rusher in obvious passing situations. That’s how Pittsburgh played it out this year, and it’s a plan worth following. Take advantage of Leal’s strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and immediately give this team solid OLB depth that they otherwise wouldn’t have and would have to address, sooner than you think, as protection behind another Watt injury or the loss of Highsmith. As a pass-rusher, he’s not the most flexible player, but he can collapse the pocket and then work the inside on third downs. Don’t think of it as a full time EDGE.

The downside is that Leal isn’t likely to become a full-time player. It will always be a little of this, some of that. But there’s value in his versatility, and if a third-round pick can wear those hats, plug those holes, and chase down the quarterback, he’s a solid pick.

The worst thing is turning it into a full-time version of something it’s not. An all-time defensive lineman. Leal might still have his moments, but he will fight more than he will succeed. When they drafted him, that seemed to be the Steelers’ plan. Due to Watt’s injury, they changed their strategy, using Leal on the limit. It worked. Enjoy that opportunity and take advantage of desperation to reveal the right plan. This is the way to use Leal. It’s good for him, good for this defense, and the direction the team should take this offseason. His opinion of next summer will indicate the Steelers’ plans.

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