It’s been a long time coming, but in the 30th game that the Pittsburgh Steelers have played in the regular season and postseason since he was drafted, 2016 fourth-round offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins was finally able to get into a game.
Not only was this the first game in which he saw any playing time, it was also the first in which he even got to wear a uniform. While he spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve, he was an inactive for the first 10 games of the 2017 regular season.
But a series of unfortunate events led to his being active, which the Steelers clearly anticipated during the course of the week. While they knew that right tackle Marcus Gilbert was likely to be facing a four-game suspension, they also were aware that tight end Vance McDonald’s injured ankle was not yet perking up well enough for him to play.
Down to two tight ends—and only one that they like to use—and with Chris Hubbard, their preferred tackle-eligible, now back in the starting lineup, they needed to find an alternative. This isn’t the first time that they’ve done so, however. They just came to a different decision this time. And I can see the logic.
During weeks four and five, the Steelers gave backup interior offensive lineman B.J. Finney some reps at tight end as a tackle-eligible, but he is not the ideal player to put there. He is not particularly athletic and is more accustomed to playing in a booth rather than in space on the edge. While he fared well enough, I could see why they would want a different approach.
Earlier this season, Matt Feiler admitted that he did get some work at tight end during practice. But he never got into a game. Hawkins said this week that he practiced at tight end for the first time not just in his career, but for the first time ever, at any level.
“When they told me I’d be doing it, I was like, ‘all right, anything to get onto the field’”, he told Chris Adamski recently. After spending his first 10 games wearing street clothes on the sideline, I have no doubt he was willing to do just about everything to be able to wear a helmet on game day for once.
Hawkins came into this season with a lot of optimism surrounding him, but rampant reports from the spring and summer about him struggling quickly put a damper on it. He struggled in training camp, and then he struggled in the preseason games. And then he was injured for the first couple of weeks of the season.
But from the looks of it, he is finally making up ground, improving enough and showing his coaches enough to trust him. While Feiler has previously been the backup tackle to Hubbard—even getting into a game in Detroit—perhaps that role, too, will now go to Hawkins over the course of the next three games.