By Jeremy Hritz
The offensive line poses the most questions for the 2021 Steelers team, with numerous uncertainties. Unfortunately for the Steelers, if the outcomes of those questions at tackle are not satisfactory, the well-being and health of their franchise quarterback will be in jeopardy, as will the ultimate success of the team.
The Steelers will have a new starting tackle on the right side, and as a result of Alejandro Villanueva’s departure for Baltimore, a new starter on the left side. While Villanueva’s talents were on the decline and he left much to be desired in the running game, he did bring dependability, familiarity, and collegiality to the OL. The new faces at the starting tackle spots have an opportunity to show they are upgrades at the positions, and to help to establish a new mentality for a fresh starting five.
At left tackle, it is presumed that Chukwuma Okorafor will assume the responsibility, kicking over from the right side which he manned in 2020. He took over at right tackle for Matt Fieler last season who kicked inside to left guard. With starting experience, and with left tackle his natural position, there is hope Chuks can play better than he did last season. While his performance wasn’t abysmal, he wasn’t great, and hopefully year four can result in improvement in his natural position.
At right tackle, Zach Banner is unofficially penciled in as the starter in place of Villanueva. There was hope for Banner last season that he would start on the right side, but an unfortunate ACL tear in the season opener against the New York Giants dashed those hopes early on. Solid in his run blocking but average in pass protection, Banner will need to show his development as a pass protector to keep Ben Roethlisberger healthy.
Vet and Rookie Depth
In terms of depth beyond Chuks and Banner, Joe Haeg will be the first man up with experience at both left and right tackle, in addition to providing support at guard. Haeg also comes complete with postseason seasoning, playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, even being targeted on a trick play in the Super Bowl that nearly resulted in a touchdown. Behind Haeg, Dan Moore, Jr., rookie out of Texas A&M will serve as the number 4 tackle, as he has experience as both a left and right tackle, and is equally effective in both run blocking and pass protection, though not exceptional at either. What the cap is on Moore’s potential is unknown until he has had the opportunity to learn under Steelers coaching and to develop in the system.
Beyond the top four, there are a host of players competing for a space on the practice squad, and their ability to demonstrate position flexibility will serve them well in earning a spot. Aviante Collins, Anthony Coyle, Brandon Walton, and John LeGlue, who also has experience at guard, will all put their hand in the pile to show they belong with the team.
It was interesting to see the Steelers not pursue a tackle following the draft in undrafted rookie free agency, which may indicate they believe in the depth they have and the younger, unproven players they have already brought in to battle in training camp. One thing is for certain, the performance of Chuks and Banner are essential, and they will be directly related to the overall success of the 2021 Steelers.
Tackle Tells the Story
Like many positions on this year’s edition of the team, tackle is an unanswered question, and the answer is nebulous. But if the Steelers are going to make a legitimate run, they will need Chuks and Banner to emerge and show they are ready to bookend Big Ben and open running lanes for the rookie, Najee Harris.