You would think there would be a sense of disappointment that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-round draft pick hasn’t been able to earn the swing tackle job by his second season. That would ordinarily be the case for Chukwuma Okorafor. But it’s not this year, and that’s because of the performance of Zach Banner, who took over that job.
Banner, originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the fourth round in 2017, has been a journeyman early on in his career. He made the initial 53-man roster only to be released a day later when the Colts were awarded five players off waivers. He was subsequently claimed by the Cleveland Browns and was a part of their disastrous 0-16 season.
That didn’t sit well with him. Or his diet. It’s not what he signed up for. He told Teresa Varley that his weight, which had been an issue since he had to “have my hips fixed” playing basketball as a freshman at USC. By the end of his rookie season, he said that he weighed 420 pounds.
A year and a half later, the 6’9” tackle has his weight down to 340 pounds, and is in the best shape that he has been perhaps in his life. It has shown throughout the offseason and in the preseason, which is why he has been awarded the swing tackle job.
And, remember, the swing tackle is not an idle assignment in Pittsburgh. Beginning with Todd Haley in 2012, the third tackle who dresses on Sunday also has to be prepared to come into the game as an extra lineman.
I first got the sense that Banner was passing Okorafor on the depth chart because they were using him as the tackle-eligible during the preseason. Okorafor executed that role as a rookie, even before Marcus Gilbert was injured.
And they showed that look pretty extensively on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. While two-tight end sets were entirely non-existent in the season opener—they spent all but two snaps with three or more wide receivers on the field, with the other two snaps containing two halfbacks—the personnel packages were much more diverse this past week. He was on the field for two of the team’s three touchdowns Sunday, including the first, a one-yard rushing score from James Conner.
There hasn’t ever been much doubt about Banner as a talent. He has the physical component, certainly, at 6’9”. His fellow offensive linemen also praised his athleticism to Varley, a sentiment the coaching staff obviously agrees with, otherwise they would not use him on the perimeter.
Banner was enthusiastic in his praise of head coach Mike Tomlin for encouraging him to stay in Pittsburgh this offseason to work on his game and his weight. He was thankful to Garrett Giemont for getting and keeping him on the right track. The guidance and wisdom of Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey have been essential. He is loving life, loving football, and loving Pittsburgh. Let’s hope it stays that way.