The tackle-eligible is a role that has been used by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a training ground for inexperienced linemen for the better part of a decade now. The latest lineman to serve in that role is rookie third-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, who has been doing it since the season opener, which he technically started.
In point of fact, it was actually by far a season-high in playing time, seeing 17 snaps in that game, which was before Vance McDonald returned from injury, but he has played in all but one game so far this year, including 15 snaps over the past two weeks, eight coming last Sunday, which was probably the best performance yet of his young career.
Okorafor has hardly been asked to pass block yet—just two of the 36 snaps he had logged prior to the last game—but he did so twice on his eight snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals, including this first-quarter play, in which he ably handled second-year Jordan Willis. Despite his efforts, the play resulted in an incompletion, largely because Ben Roethlisberger refused his checkdown much earlier in the play.
The Steelers were set up with first and goal from the one-yard line a couple of times during the game, and Okorafor got work in those spots as well, resulting in a pair of one-yard touchdown runs. Prior to the first, from the eight, he played a key role in sealing off linebacker Vincent Ray at the second level for James Conner, who picked up seven yards on the play.
The following play resulted in a touchdown, with the rookie tackle working off the left side of the defense, double teaming Michael Johnson with McDonald. While Conner did not run directly behind his block, it was still a quality effort from him that prevented the veteran end from even having a chance to get involved in the play.
The Steelers ran essentially the same play on the second of two James Conner one-yard rushing touchdowns, with the same result, speaking both of the end of the play and of Okorafor’s performance. In fact, his block on Johnson was even better on this one.
One thing the Steelers talked about regarding the Western Michigan product when they drafted him was that they coveted his mobility. He showed that on the second play above, and here as well on an 11-yard run, again working to the second level. Conner, however, cut the run back because the Bengals had left such a wide-open alley.
He hasn’t necessarily played a big role so far, but Okorafor has done everything asked of him and done it relatively well. I would expect that should another tackle miss a game, he might be asked to start rather than Matt Feiler.