It was Todd Haley in 2012 when he took over as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers who really began to make serious use of the sixth offensive lineman as a tackle-eligible receiver. It was a way to get another big body on the field for blocking purposes, of course, but it’s also served as an apprenticeship for young linemen to get valuable in-game experience.
In that first year, it was Mike Adams in that role, then Kelvin Beachum until he took over a starting job. More recently, Chris Hubbard served in that role for a couple of years, and then Chukwuma Okorafor did it as a rookie in 2018. But this year, the role belongs to Zach Banner, the third-year guy who had his first full year in Pittsburgh in 2019.
Originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 2017 in the fourth round, he made their initial roster but was waived the next day, claimed by the Cleveland Browns. He bounced around during the following offseason before finally landing on his feet—after a period of unemployment—when the Steelers called him up during training camp.
He’s had a steady job since, but now he is carving out a steady role, passing up Okorafor as the swing tackle and the tackle-eligible. He has played pretty extensively in that role already this season, and it was prominent last night, to the point where the crowd cheered whenever he was announced. Which he loved.
He spoke to reporters after the game, and if you watch the linked video (his interview is at the end), you can see his personality quite clearly. You can also clearly see the genuine emotion with which he talks about playing football in Pittsburgh.
“It’s starting to become a home, and I want to keep it that way”, he said. “I want to be here. This place is awesome. The environment, the fans, as long as you work your tail off, and want to be here, and wear the black and gold—I got that right this time—you know what I mean? It’s awesome”.
The fans love him, his teammates love him, the coaches love him. And he is starting to play good ball as well. Ignited by a rediscovery of his love for the game, Banner is back on the track that his natural talent originally set him on, keeping his weight in check and dedicating himself to the job.
Quarterback Mason Rudolph was asked after the game if they were going to have to draw up a play for Banner to get him involved. His response revealed just how much the big man has become a part of that locker room, just one of the guys, even if he took a roundabout way of getting here.
“I think at one point, one of the last drives, when 72 enters the game he’s an eligible, and I said, ‘are they cheering for you?’. And he’s like, ‘yeah, they are!’”, Rudolph said. “He was real happy about that. But we’ve definitely got to dial up a shot to 72 downfield. Or somewhere. I don’t know how far he can get downfield, but give him a ball at some point, yeah”.