Tomlin Looking For Young O-Linemen To Show Versatility In Attrition-Created Preseason Opportunities

How many of the Pittsburgh Steelers starting offensive linemen will ultimately wind up playing in the team’s Friday night 2019 preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field? The way things are shaping up after the team’s Wednesday training camp practice, don’t be surprised if Matt Feiler winds up being the only one.

The main reason that Feiler might be the only one of the current Steelers staring offensive linemen to start Friday night is due to it being the team’s first preseason game and as is usually the case, several veterans such as center Maurkice Pouncey and guards Ramon Foster and David DeCastro don’t require in-game reps this early in the process. Another reason is because both Pouncey and Foster are currently both dealing with minor injuries as is tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who seemingly is going through his annual camp shoulder soreness. As for Feiler, who is currently on course to be the Steelers starting right tackle to start the regular season, he’s likely to start Friday night at left guard in an effort to improve his position flexibility.

With so many starting Steelers starting offensive linemen expected to sit out Friday night, head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett will both be able to get a long look at the rest of the healthy players on the offensive line depth chart. During his Wednesday press conference, Tomlin talked some about how the attrition of training camp on the offensive line has led to younger members of that group getting more practice reps as of late and how he looks forward to seeing how those same players are able to take advantage of their extra playtime opportunities Friday night against the Buccaneers.

“We’ve been kind of going through that process and that natural attrition that is this process creates opportunities for guys to show versatility, for guys to move up and get reps in more veteran groups,” Tomlin said. “And guys like Chuks [Chukwuma Okorafor] and guys like Zach Banner, [Jerald] Hawkins, they’ve all had opportunities. And even on the interior. Fred Johnson has moved up here in the last couple of days and really gotten some quality reps because of the opportunities that this process presents. So I am excited about getting those guys in the stadium and seeing what they can do individually and collectively.”

Tomlin mentioned tackle Jerald Hawkins during that rundown of offensive linemen and it will be interesting to see if he’s ultimately healthy enough to play Friday night as well as he’s missed the last few training camp practices with an undisclosed injury. If he’s deemed healthy enough to play Friday night, there’s a good chance he starts at left tackle if Villanueva is held out of action. Felier will likely start at left guard with B.J. Finney likely getting the start at center in place of Pouncey. Moving further right, Fred Johnson, a rookie undrafted free agent out of Florida, could get the start in place of a healthy scratch in DeCastro with either Chukwuma Okorafor or Zach Banner getting the start at right tackle. If Hawkins sits out Friday night, Okorafor will likely be the starting left tackle. If Hawkins plays, however, Okorafor will more than likely start at right tackle. Regardless, Okorafor will likely play both tackle spots Friday night.

While most should be excited to see whatever starting five offensive linemen are thrown out there Friday night, Johnson might perhaps be the most intriguing one of the group as the Steelers might just have found themselves another diamond in the rough when it comes to him. Johnson, who measured in at this year’s scouting combine at 6071, 326-pounds, started 33 games at Florida and played at both right tackle and right guard. He’s practiced some at both guard and tackle so far during training camp and that’s a plus as the Steelers love players with position flexibility

“We’ve got a lot of young guys who are vying for roles and part of that is to make yourself versatile,” Tomlin said this week. “We’ve got tackles playing the left side and the right side. We have tackles playing guard and tackle. Versatility is big for situations such as that. We call on guys to show what they are capable of. It is no different than game day for us. Those two or three backups have to have some versatility.”.

Johnson was one of the Steelers highest-priority undrafted free agent signings this year and he appears to be making a strong push for a spot on this year’s 53-man roster. It’s quite surprising that he went undrafted this year. Even he said recently that he was surprised that he wasn’t drafted this year.

“I thought I would go somewhere around the fifth round or after,” Johnson said this week, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I can’t dwell on that now. It’s in the past. In college I wasn’t a top recruit. We had a Number 1 lineman. There was stuff that could have deterred me from going there. But I went there anyway and made a name for myself. Now I have to do the same thing here. I like being the underdog. I like having to work for stuff so I can say I earned it.

“Some things in life you can’t control. You have to play the cards you’re dealt. That’s one thing that motivated me to come out here and decide where I wanted to go. The opportunity is in front of me. Now I just have to go get it.”

Johnson and the rest of the Steelers young offensive linemen battling for roster spots this summer will have their first in-stadium opportunities “to go get it” Friday night at Heinz Field and you can bet Tomlin and Sarrett will both be watching each of them very closely. At 6’7″, Johnson won’t be hard to spot.

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