The Pittsburgh Steelers starting lineup that takes the field today will feature a number of stories of players who were once on the outskirts of the roster that are now starting, either temporarily or permanently, because the team gave them the opportunity to do so in the past when an injury arose.
That includes the majority of the offensive line, which includes three former college free agents, two of whom are permanent starters in left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Ramon Foster. Villanueva was the swing tackle in 2014 because of an injury to Mike Adams. He ascended into a starting role after Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL.
He told Jeremy Fowler that Head Coach Mike Tomlin told him at that time that no matter what happens during his starting reps, the Steelers were going to stick with him and give him that opportunity, to offer him stability. Villanueva said that gave him “so much peace of mind. You press a little less”.
While Foster had started before, he was slated to be a backup in 2012 until David DeCastro, then a rookie, tore his MCL in the preseason. He would start the first 13 games of that season at right guard before moving to left guard for the final three, where he has remained since.
Then there is Mike Hilton, a former Reserve/Future signing who was able to gain the necessary practice reps to get noticed because of injuries ahead of him last year, most notably Senquez Golson, his college teammate who was a former second-round draft pick.
Stories such as these have not been uncommon in Pittsburgh, and other beneficiaries of their strategy have noticed. L.J. Fort and Matt Feiler both talked to Fowler about it as well. The latter told ESPN that the “sense of them giving you more work really helped me move along and become who I am”. Feiler, who is starting his seventh game this year due to Marcus Gilbert’s injuries, added that it “definitely gave me more fire to work harder this offseason”.
As Feiler points out, among the players named above (other than Foster) as well as tight end Xavier Grimble, the Steelers have committed over 2000 offensive and defensive snaps this year to five players who started their journey in Pittsburgh as practice squad players. Another former practice squad player, Chris Hubbard, turned his own opportunity last year into a starting job in free agency.
The Steelers have a reputation among some fans as being stubborn and favoring veterans. This was more true in the past than it is now, but there are plenty of examples of players who were given opportunities and who made the most of them.
The next player fans are looking for is rookie college free agent outside linebacker Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, who made his debut last week, though he played just nine snaps. How much work will he get today in Oakland?