As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X-Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Here’s our X factor for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams.
X FACTOR: C Mason Cole
Because it has to be Mason Cole. When you’re facing Aaron Donald, your center needs to bring his A-game. Through five games, Cole is flunking. I won’t spend this whole post beating up on the guy. You guys know my thoughts and probably share similar views. After a solid and stable 2022, Cole has played poorly this season and the Steelers will have to give serious thought to replacing him in the offseason.
If there’s one game for him to begin turning things around, it’s this one. He’ll face his toughest test so far and his most challenging one of the season when he takes on Donald Sunday. To Cole, it’s a fun challenge facing him. To me, and to probably this coaching staff, it’s far less thrilling. It should be pointed out the Rams move Donald around and he’s obviously not a head-up nose tackle type. But they know the struggles Cole has had this season, they watch the tape, and you can count on them attacking him.
Offensive line coach Pat Meyer’s system often leaves the center in more 1v1 moments than past systems because they have uncovered guards help the tackles and protect the inside against potent pass rushers. That’s the trade-off, do you want your tackles or centers on islands? It demands a center who is excellent in pass pro and Cole hasn’t been that this season, allowing three sacks. according to our charting, and what could’ve been two more had RG Nate Herbig not bailed him out on two almost-identical looking reps against the Baltimore Ravens.
Cole obviously can’t handle Donald alone nor should he. Even if he was playing up to last year’s standard, it would still be a difficult spot to pit him against Donald, a true generational player. But Cole is going to have to show better technique. Donald can’t split double teams, can’t swipe and swim past with ease, and he can’t dominate the interior of this game. He’ll make his plays, sure, all the great ones do, but he can’t define the game.
Pittsburgh’s offense, to its credit, is good about preventing that. They’ll have to do it again this weekend. The NFL is a defensive line league. In their first six games, the Steelers have faced Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Myles Garrett, Maxx Crosby, Will Anderson, and now Donald. All studs or emerging stars. It rarely gets easy for an offensive line, and the Steelers have to be at their best in this one.