The Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to learn in a hurry last season just how crucial having a good backup center could be when they lost Maurkice Pouncey in the season opener after just eight snaps.
To get through the rest of that game, they were forced to plug in Kelvin Beachum at center, who later went on to start 11 games at left tackle in 2013. After the game, they signed veteran free agent Fernando Velasco, who started the next 11 games before missing the rest of the season himself with an Achilles injury.
After that, they finally had to turn to Cody Wallace, a waiver wire signing on the eve of the regular season that they added due to their lack of confidence in interior lineman John Malecki as the backup center.
Wallace started the last four games at center and played well, particularly in the last two games, as the Steelers went 3-1 in the final month of the season. His play led the team to re-sign him to a three-year contract.
But they could be without him for the season opener as he works his way back from a finger injury that kept him out of practice early in the week and saw participate in a limited capacity on Friday. He is listed as questionable to play.
If Wallace is unable to go, then rookie Wesley Johnson will have to be active as the backup center. Though he was primarily a left tackle in college, he started at all five positions during his collegiate career, and all of his 111 preseason snaps came at center.
While he had a strong preseason overall, he had some very noticeable mishaps in pass protection in the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers, even if he was still able to run block fairly well in the contest.
This could be a cause for concern because the players he faced in the preseason finale were perhaps his stiffest competition that he’s gone up against. Still, one rocky performance is certainly not enough to write somebody off.
While he clearly still has work to do to improve his game, however, I do believe that he earned his way on to the 53-man roster as a rookie, and has shown enough to demonstrate that he will be able to contribute if called upon.
Should that situation arise, he would also have all the help he needs with guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro lined up on either side of him.
In the long term, it’s likely that Johnson’s future with this team will be as the sixth lineman and primary backup at every position, which is the role that Beachum found himself in to begin the 2013 season before finding a spot in the starting lineup.
Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to start proving that he belongs so soon, because if he does, it means injuries, and there have been far too many of those along the offensive line in recent years.