With 2023 training camp underway, the goal of these articles is to take news we are hearing, whether it be a quality practice, where players are lining up, etc., and using that as a launching board to learn more about our 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers. One caveat before I dive in, we of course do not want to make huge proclamations in the short term and see how the entirety of camp unfolds.
Alex Kozora does a fantastic job keeping us up to date on what is happening in training camp, and mentioned interior defensive lineman (IDL) Breiden Fehoko positively in his recent ‘Steady Eddies’ article. He stated “…his run defense has been steady, a difficult guy to move with built-in leverage and a ton of strength. There can be a little bit of finesse to his game too, able to split the A-gap, and he uses his hands well.” With these things in mind, lets learn more about Fehoko.
Pro Bio: In 2020, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chargers, spending most of the season on the practice squad, elevated for the two games he appeared in as a rookie and played just 19 total defensive snaps. He was promoted more quickly to the Chargers roster in 2021, making his first appearance in week four, playing in eight games and 121 defensive snaps. Last season, Fehoko made the initial 53-man roster, but reverted to the practice squad soon after. He once again made his way back on to the Chargers roster, playing at least 25 defensive snaps in the final nine games, and had 279 by years end.
So, we can see Fehoko’s opportunities increased in his three seasons with the Chargers. In his NFL career, he has primarily played in the A-gap (56.3%), compared to 38.1% in the B-gap, his second highest alignment by far. Considering the nose tackle position is largely utilized more in run situations, and what Kozora has seen in camp, I wanted to see how Fehoko stacked up as a run defender in 2022 among players that had a minimum of 100 A-gap snaps (36 qualifiers), including players of interest through Steelers lenses, and using data from Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Here are 2022 run snaps and average tackle depth to gauge quantity and yardage comparatively:
Fehoko lands on the bottom left of the chart, with a well below average 167 run snaps that ranked 26th, while his 2.5 average depth of tackle landed slightly below the mean and tied for 17th. His run snap rank is to be expected in just nine games played, so Fehoko’s stronger rank in average depth of tackle is the more important number. Here’s to hoping he can improve to an above average tackle depth if he indeed earns playing time with the black and gold.
The incumbent nose tackle for Pittsburgh is Montravius Adams, who lands below Fehoko in both data points. Adams had a 2.9 average depth of tackle (T-28th) and 140 run snaps (30th), appearing in all 17 games, playing 60.5% A-gap snaps and 37.3% in the B-gap (Fehoko 56.3 and 38.1%), which is interesting and important context as we learn more on the potential 2023 nose tackle candidates for Pittsburgh.
Armon Watts was the final player currently on the Steelers roster to meet the criteria in 2022. With the Chicago Bears last season, he led the focused group with 281 run snaps (10th) and a 2.3 average depth of tackle (T-13th), encouragingly landing him above the mean in both data points.
He also was able to play in all 17 games, emphasizing this trio encouragingly providing a clean bill of recent health that will hopefully continue. Watts snap alignments are important to note, playing a bit more in the B-gap (52.5%) than his 42.9% in the A-gap (228 snaps, most of the highlighted players), nice snap versatility and factor when seeing the focused players results.
Now let’s look at types of tackles, solo versus assisted tackles against the run:
The only above the mean result came from Watts, with 24 solo run tackles (T-15th), which is reasonable to expect given his higher amount of opportunities. All three focused players landed below the mean in assists, starting with Watts’ ten that also tied for 15th. Fehoko landed just behind that with nine assisted run tackles (T-20th), but had just 11 solo run tackles that was the least of the focused group and tied for 31st. Adams had more solo run tackles at 18 (T-22nd), but tied for last in the NFL with just four assists.
This gives us great quantity context to what type of tackles the group was able to provide, as we dive deeper into the quality.
Next, a ‘hit or miss’ type view I enjoy looking at for run defense, starting with stop percentage, which uses the successful play rates formula (less than 40% on first down, 50% or less on second down, and third or fourth down plays kept from a first down or touchdown) and missed tackle percentage:
Here we see Adams above the mean in both data points, providing strong value for Pittsburgh in these terms last season. Extremely encouraging was no missed tackles as a run defender, one of only three qualifying players to achieve this, along with a solid 8.7 stop rate that tied for sixth best among his peers. This visual makes a strong case for it being Adams’ job to lose in my opinion, and seeing the other two players in our sights below the mean in both.
Watts had a 10.5% missed tackle rate (25th) on four missed tackles, and was just below the mean in stop rate (6.9%) which ranked 19th. Fehoko unfortunately had the lowest results of the highlighted players in both data points, with a 5.6 stop percentage (T-26th), and a discouraging 16.7% missed tackle rate that was third worst among his peers (34th). This sheds important light to his lower results in solo tackles, having an issue in this regard on missing four tackles, which matched Watts number on far less opportunity.
Looking back to Fehoko’s 2021 season gives a sprinkle of optimism, when he had no missed tackles, but came on just 65 run snaps that year. This will definitely be high on my radar for the position group, particularly the newest Steelers if they earn game action, and the 2023 Pittsburgh defense as a whole.
To close, let’s look at a more total view of how the players fared in the run game with PFF run defense grades along with points above average per play (a players EPA responsibility on run plays using the total points system that distributes credit among all players on the field for a given play, and accounts for defenders in the box, blown blocks forced, broken tackles, and turnovers) from Sports Info Solutions (SIS):
Adams had the only above the mean result (slightly), ranking 19th in points above average. All three players in our sights landed well below average in run defense grade, with Adams coming in at 46.8 (30th) which seems low in my opinion. Interestingly, Fehoko ranked one spot higher (29th) with a 47.2 run defense grade, while landing very low in points above average (31st), which makes more sense in my opinion considering the findings today. Watts had the lowest 44.8 run defense grade of the players in our sights, ironically ranking one spot behind Adams (31st), while SIS had him ranked stronger than Fehoko (28th).
So, Fehoko unfortunately landed below the mean in every aspect of today’s study: average depth of tackle (T-17th), assists (T-20th), run snaps (26th), stop percentage (T-26th), run defense grade (29th), points above average (31st), solo run tackles (T-31st), and missed tackle rate (34th) that was third worst among the 36 qualifiers that had at least 100 A-gap snaps.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out another key factor when considering Fehoko’s results in 2022. The Chargers team run defense was one of the worst in football in 2022, with a 35.3 PFF grade (30th) and allowed 5.4 yards per attempt which ranked dead last in the NFL, compared to the Steelers 70.3 grade (10th) and 4.2 yards per attempt (T-seventh). We can see Fehoko’s 2022 performance unfortunately was a factor of that equation, despite his perceived strengths and encouraging things Kozora has witnessed in training camp thus far.
If things continue to progress well for him though, here’s to hoping his insertion into the Steelers defense can lead to more success for him, along with aiding Pittsburgh’s recent positive trends in run defense after some painful years in recent memory.
As noted at the beginning of the article, the goal today was not to make any major proclamations, and I hope you enjoyed learning more about Fehoko. One thing’s for sure, I can’t wait to see how things pan out in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in 2023.
Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.