The Pittsburgh Steelers notched their second win of the 2021 NFL season with a 27–19 victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 5. One large aspect of the game was the improved play of the offensive line. Not only did the Steelers eclipse the 100 yard rushing mark for the first time this season, they also kept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright most of the day and gave him time to go through his progressions to find open receivers.
The player who was possibly scrutinized the most on the Steelers offensive line was fourth-year tackle Chukwuma Okorafor. The only starter on the line returning from 2020, Okorafor often appeared to be the weak spot on the Steelers young offensive line. But in Week 5, Okorafor stepped up his game and helped contain one of the NFL‘s best pass rushers in Von Miller.
So what got into Okorafor to have him have such an improved game? Perhaps it was familiarity. In Okorafor’s first and only start at tackle in his rookie season of 2018, he stepped in for an injured Matt Feiler and faced off against Miller and the Broncos in his first start. Technically Okorafor started three games as a rookie, but the other two were at “jumbo tight end” when the Steelers started the game with an extra lineman. But in the only game in 2018 where Okorafor played 100% of the offensive snaps, he went up against Miller.
What might have been even more of a motivation for Okorafor going into Week 5 was the fact he missed the Steelers previous game due to a concussion. In his absence, Joe Haeg filled in and the Steelers offensive line appeared to be moving in the right direction. If Okorafor had struggled on Sunday, perhaps he was on a short leash knowing Haeg was a viable option in case Chuks wasn’t getting the job done.
If having Haeg breathing down his neck wasn’t enough, the Steelers are very close to a return of Zach Banner from the Reserve/Injured List. Beating Okorafor for the right tackle job to begin the 2020 season, Banner has been on IR since Week 2 of last year. With the 21-day window now closing for Banner to join the active roster, perhaps knowing the Steelers have yet another player who could push him for a starting job gave Okorafor a little extra motivation.
It will be interesting to see what the Steelers do at the tackle position moving forward once Zach Banner is back in the mix. With 2021 fourth-round draft pick Dan Moore Jr. having his ups and downs at left tackle, he is also coming off arguably his best game of the 2021 season. With the Steelers unlikely to have four tackles dressed on game day, one of the four players— Banner, Okorafor, Moore, or Haeg— will likely not even get a helmet on game day. Had Chuks put forth another subpar effort in Week 5, he may have very well been the odd man out on game day the next week.
Instead, Chuks Okorafor stepped up and did a nice job handling his blocking assignment against Von Miller on Sunday. Right guard Trai Turner praised Okorafor after the game for his performance according to ESPN’s Brooke Pryor.
Von Miller finished with assists on 2 tackles. That's it.— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) October 10, 2021
Trai Turner praised Okorafor for efforts slowing him: "I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Chuks had a phenomenal week of practice. Had a phenomenal game. He came, he strapped up, and he was ready to go the whole game."
One way in which Okorafor would catch some criticism from Week 5 is from a penalty perspective. While Okorafor did have two false start penalties, they were of the variety of offensive tackles getting an early “kick” against edge rushers. While two of them were called, there were plenty of other times the same penalty was not called in this or other NFL games. As tackles due their best to get an advantage, they push the limit as much as they can. It happens when they take it too far, but getting called a second time in a game is rough. It’s one of the ways Von Miller can affect a game more than just his stat line.
It will be interesting to see moving forward if Okorafor can build on this performance, or if it was merely just a flash in the pan. With the Steelers having other options at the tackle position moving forward, if Okorafor falters and fails to get the job done, he could very well find himself on the sidelines. But until that occurs, the Steelers having several serviceable options at the tackle position is not a bad problem to have until players step up and dominate at the position.