Heading into their Week 1 game vs. the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers were a healthy team. Only dealing with the loss of All-Pro guard David DeCastro, the Steelers were not missing any other players prior to their season opener.
My what can change in just a few days.
- Stefen Wisniewski leaves with a pectoral injury.
- The next play Zach Banner tears his ACL.
- DeCastro has yet to return to practice and looks like he will miss another week.
So, what does this mean for the now fluid offensive line?
- Chukwuma Okorafor, who lost the battle at the right tackle position to Banner, will start the game at right tackle.
- Rookie 4th round pick Kevin Dotson is poised to make his first start in his second professional game.
- The Steelers signed former draft pick Jerald Hawkins to be the swing tackle and insurance policy at tackle.
That is a lot of change, and a very green right side of the line, entering their Week 2 matchup vs. the Denver Broncos. Most would think Dotson will be the biggest issue this Sunday at Heinz Field, but offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner knows Dotson is more than capable of holding his own from a physicality standpoint.
“He’s naturally really strong. I don’t know how better to say it.” Fichtner told media via Zoom. “He is just a naturally strong, tough-minded guy. The natural thing for him to do is get physical with somebody.
“Now, match the technique and fundamentals of a young player that makes his job so important and allows you to really achieve better and great successes at your position. Those are going to have to come with time. He is working hard, and he has been available. I’m excited for him to get his opportunity.”
With Okorafor and now Hawkins being the primary tackles on the Steelers roster, Fichtner has had his hands full trying to get everyone acclimated to the system. However, Hawkins is just a season removed from the organization and, according to Fichtner, has picked up right where he left off.
“It’s neat to have Hawk [Jerald Hawkins] back. He’s been in the system; he was in the system before. We used him in some of our big packages in the past. It’s just unique to have him back.” Fichtner added. “It’s funny, as soon as he walked in the building, I got a big grin, and he looked at me and said, “Coach, we still have, blank, blank and blank?” I said, “Still got it.” He said, “OK, I’m good.”
“It’ll be exciting to move forward there. I’m saddened for the injury. It was tough, and it was tough for Zach [Banner] because I just know how hard he worked. But that was really a competitive competition that went down to the end, and whoever we play is going to be, and we respect and know that he will do a great job for us. Chuks [Okorafor] has played in this game before against this team.”
Fichtner is talking about Okorafor’s start in Denver against the Broncos and Von Miller in his rookie year of 2018, but you have to wonder what such change can do to the offensive line as a group.
“These guys are professional about their work.” Fichtner said. “The nice unique thing is you just mentioned a couple names like Pounce and Al [Villanueva] and Matt [Feiler], who is no longer young. That is a good strong nucleus from a communication standpoint to a no-blink standpoint to a big brother standpoint. I may have a little more gray hair thinking about it, but in no way that we put anybody that’s a part of our roster that I won’t get a good night sleep because I trust them.”
Trusting them is step one, but having them execute and perform where “the standard is the standard” is a completely different question altogether. The good news for the Steelers is neither Wisniewski or DeCastro’s injuries are serious enough to have the linemen put on the injured reserve list. This means the right side of Dotson and Okorafor is likely to be a temporary fix until those two veterans return to health.
In the meantime, the Steelers will likely have to plan accordingly to protect Ben Roethlisbeger and open running lanes on the right side of the line.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black-and-gold as they roll through the 2020 regular season.