The Pittsburgh Steelers have had one single, solitary starting spot up for grabs during training camp this year, at right tackle. That battle may not be determined until kickoff in the season opener—at least as far as the outside world is concerned.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said after today’s final training camp practice that the team’s first official depth chart may have an ‘OR’ included in the starting lineup at right tackle—meaning Chukwuma Okorafor OR Zach Banner, or with the names reversed, of course.
“You may see ‘Or’ listed on that depth chart one Monday”, he said. “Meaning ‘O-R’”.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t know who he is going to start Week One Against the New York Giants. It doesn’t necessarily even mean that Banner and Okorafor won’t know until then. But concealing that information can help provide the team a competitive advantage as they open the season.
There is nothing to gain by informing your opponents about a decision in the starting lineup that isn’t obvious. And normally, in such situations as this, they are obvious. You can see by the playing time in the preseason. But this year, nearly every team has been playing things close to the vest in terms of protecting their information.
For teams with a lot more turnover, this hidden knowledge may be their best weapon to start the season, since there will be so much uncertainty not just about what their scheme will look like, but even who will be on the field. It’s hard to prepare for a team without knowing who will be playing and what they will be running.
Tomlin did say that the only significant issue in the process has been that both tackles have shown themselves capable. “I think it’s been a challenging decision for us because both guys are capable”, he said. “Both guys have been consistently above the line in their performance, and so those are good problems to have. I don’t know that I necessarily view it as a negative thing, where whoever gets named starter could have a short leash, etc. I think we’ve seen two guys who are capable NFL starters at that position battling it out, and that’s why we’re not in a hurry to make a decision”.
At no point during the offseason process as the team ever seem to flinch, threatening to move Matt Feiler back over to right tackle after shifting him over to left guard to take over Ramon Foster’s spot. That is plain and simply because they have been given a consistent level of comfort in the performance and progress of Okorafor and Banner.