It’s a good thing that with two starting tackles over the age of 30, the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting some signs of life from their younger tackles and tackle-capable offensive linemen on the 53-man roster—and even on the injured reserve list.
While Alejandro Villanueva has developed yet again into one of the best tackles of the season, Marcus Gilbert has been sidelined for almost half of the year, including the three games played since the bye week, and at the moment it’s unclear if he will be suiting up by their next game.
If he doesn’t, there isn’t any worry, because the team fully believes in second-year Matt Feiler, who has spent most of the past two seasons focusing on playing guard, and even worked extensively at learning the center position this offseason.
The 26-year-old out of Bloomsburg has helped the Steelers offense keep things going without missing a beat. They are averaging well over 30 points per game in the four games that he has started, and they have both run and thrown the ball well in those contests.
He is experiencing an ascent similar to that of Chris Hubbard in 2016, who became the default backup tackle due to injury, but got the opportunity to start and played beyond expectations. This year, third-year Jerald Hawkins was in-line to take over the backup role before suffering a season-ending injury in the spring.
Even though he dresses over Feiler when all linemen are healthy, rookie Chukwuma Okorafor has been passed over as the starting option, and with the way that the former has played when he has been in the game, it’s hard to argue with the decision-making.
Feiler has only been active for five of the team’s nine games this year, but he has started four of them. He was an active backup in Week Two when right guard David DeCastro was out, serving as the next man up for the interior positions with B.J. Finney in the starting lineup.
The next week, Marcus Gilbert was out with a hamstring injury, which moved Feiler from backup to starter, and he played well against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, enough to convince the coaching staff that they can trust him to start games if necessary.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the first injury came later in the season. Would the staff have trusted Okorafor to play by that point, and chosen the rookie over Feiler?
As we sit here, looking ahead, Gilbert’s future heading into next year is unclear with one season left on his contract and a long history of injuries, now with a suspension as well. He has missed at least three games in all but two seasons, and there is Feiler, Okorafor, Hawkins, and Zach Banner working at the position.