When the Pittsburgh Steelers activated Zach Banner to the 53-man roster, it began the discussion of how the man ear-marked for the starting right tackle position before suffering a knee injury setback should be integrated with the offensive line. While he was inactive to play vs. the Seattle Seahawks, the expectation is that Banner will resume the starting right tackle position, or does he?
At his afternoon press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin responded to the question of where Banner stands on the depth chart with a response that certainly did not provide certainty:
“He’s in a good position, we’re in a good position, that’s just something we wanted to look at on the other side of the bye. That was the decision that was made last week, it has no reflection on or bearing on the decision that we’re going to make in the upcoming weeks.”
The offensive line has shown signs of improvement as the season has progressed, evidenced by RB Najee Harris accumulating 203 rushing yards with a 4.32 average over the last two games. With his 136 touches currently the second most in the NFL, it’s evident that Harris is quickly becoming the focal point of the Steelers offense. As his carries increase, it is only prudent to ask the question of how wise it is to tinker with the chemistry of a young line that is just starting to gel for the insertion of a player with only 1 career start. Does Banner bring enough to justify disrupting the rhythm that just began building? And if you do go with Banner at right tackle, who do you choose to play at left tackle?
Rookie Dan Moore Jr. has done a solid job at left tackle, starting far earlier than anyone expected and has become a fan favorite. Responsible for protecting the back side of Ben Roethlisberger, Moore has exceeded what could have been hoped for. Still, when taking an objective view of his play, he is still a rookie and it does show. Chukwuma Okorafor has been roundly criticized for his inconsistent play at right tackle, but is it fair? The Okorafor struggles of 2020 do not seem to have carried over into 2021 and he has played with more confidence and fewer mistakes. While not a powerful tackle, he does have good footwork and is quick, which has been an asset as he is able to pull and consistently block outside when the Steelers run the pitch play to Harris. His performance of shutting down Von Miller was exceptional and a career highlight. However, he still does have weaknesses in his game, most notably not being particularly strong and it has led to him being exploited in pass rush. Asking him to flip back to left tackle after getting into a rhythm at right tackle would make things even tougher and could be a set back.
What Banner brings on the field is sheer strength and power befitting his nickname of “The Hulk” that neither Moore or Okorafor possess. It was demonstrated it in the 2020 opener before injuring his ACL and in the preseason. What he brings off the field is something that Roethlisberger referred to as “fire and passion” in assuming the leadership role of the offensive line despite not playing. While he shares the longest tenured OL honors with Okorafor, Banner is clearly more vocal than his reserved counterpart and won’t hesitate to speak up, when necessary, as the leader. He demonstrates precisely that on the Steeler Nation Vidcast in addressing the unfair criticism of Okorafor and the challenges of flipping from left to right tackle, as well as his displeasure of Roethlisberger not being helped up by teammates after being knocked down vs. the Green Bay Packers. In camp, he told the media that “My house is the host house” as he has played host to his teammates on the offensive line for “porch talks” and team building in the same way Maurkice Pouncey did before his retirement. These intangible factors are extremely important, but the performance has to be there too.
While the choice may be made up for the Steelers already, given the recent injury to Dan Moore on Sunday night, it’s certainly a viable question on what the best decision is.
What do you think the Steelers will do or should do? Leave a comment below.