Hours before kickoff Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced veteran center Maurkice Pouncey wasn’t going to play. Instead, the team turned to JC Hassenauer, making his first career start against a tough, aggressive Ravens’ front. That led some to ask, at least before the game, why a more veteran player like Matt Feiler wasn’t shifted to the pivot.
Talking to reporters Friday, OC Randy Fichtner said the team’s goal is to move as few players as possible when making injury/illness adjustments.
“Matt [Feiler] is center capable,” Fichtner told reporters via team transcript. “J.C. [Hassenauer] did a nice job for us the other day on short notice. He did a really good job. I think the least amount of moves you can make, the stronger the group will be. We have to make a double move at times if the wrong person goes down.”
Consider Feiler to be the team’s third string/emergency center, similar to the role Chris Hubbard had towards the end of his Steelers’ career. Feiler has never snapped in an NFL game before, only seeing work there during OTAs and training camp. Ideally, you’d never see him in an NFL game at the position. Hassenauer has worked that spot in the two years he’s been with the team, during preseason games, and saw mop-up duty in blowout wins earlier in the year. There wasn’t an ideal choice but Hassenauer was the obvious one.
To Fichtner’s point, Hassenauer played well enough too, avoiding disaster that’s common in these last-minute lineup changes with a quarterback he’s barely worked with before.
The overall philosophy is sound too. Don’t play musical chairs with the offensive line. Moving two players to solve one problem creates more uncertainty and more chaos. You’re now relying on two guys to do their job at their new spots in areas players have seen little or no practice time with. Given how important cohesion is for an offensive line, a 1:1 switch is almost always the smart strategy.
Unfortunately, it has its limits. Briefly Wednesday, the Steelers were forced to make two changes for one spot. After Chukwuma Okorafor exited the game with an ankle injury, Feiler kicked out to his old stomping grounds at right tackle while Kevin Dotson came off the bench to play his first snaps at left guard of the season (or really, his career, after playing exclusively LG in college). In that moment, Pittsburgh largely ran out of options. With Jerald Hawkins on COVID, the only other choice was to play Anthony Coyle at RT. Coyle was elevated before the game with Pouncey out of the lineup. But Coyle has never played an NFL snap and the Steelers deemed it less risky to move Feiler and Dotson – two guys with NFL experience – instead.
Thankfully, Okorafor missed only one snap and Feiler went back to his left guard spot. Hopefully Hawkins gets cleared for Monday’s game against Washington so the Steelers don’t have to potentially do that dance again. If anything though, it shows Feiler’s versatility and the Steelers’ payoff of having him work so many spots early in his career before becoming a full-time starter.