While the Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot of questions surrounding their offensive line heading into the 2021 season, they also have several potential answers. That includes the return of Zach Banner to the right tackle position that he won during training camp last year.
Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor competed against one another for the right to start there in 2020. But after winning the job, the aforementioned suffered a torn ACL in the season opener after logging just 49 snaps. It was a gut-wrenching moment for the veteran making his first career start as an offensive lineman. Now eight months removed from surgery, he is chomping at the bit to get back.
“I’m like a dog on a leash right now”, he described his demeanor at OTAs, while speaking to reporters earlier today. “They keep pulling back, keep pulling back. One thing you’re not gonna have to tell me is give effort and be there. So it’s not only just for those other guys and to be around the team and to get the visual reps for myself”.
“At the same time, it’s a good thing for myself, just mentally, getting through this”, he continued. “Them pulling at the leash, it bugs me, because I feel good, feeling better every day. I know the overall goal is for the season, but at the same time, it’s hard, but it makes it easier when you’re outside”.
As head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say, you’d rather have guys you have to say ‘whoa’ than ‘sic ‘em’, meaning that it’s better to have players who push too far than those who have to push to go far enough. It’s easier to train and enforce restraint than to encourage aggression.
Of course, when Tomlin invokes this phrase, it’s usually about pass-rushers, but the same can apply to a player attacking his rehab process. Banner is pushing himself to do everything he is physically able to do on his surgically-repaired knee in an effort to prepare himself for the job he’s worked his life for. It’s up to the coaches to keep him at a safe pace.
And this is the first time he’s been able to be out on the field since his injury in September. That’s a long time ago for a football player, especially a veteran who had just won a starting job and had it taken from him due to injury almost as quickly as he earned it.
Banner understands that he is going to have to earn that job back. Even if he, perhaps, gets first crack at it. Okorafor is projected to move over to left tackle after playing nearly every snap on the right side after Banner went down. The team also signed Joe Haeg in free agency, and drafted Dan Moore Jr. in the fourth round. They could challenge for either tackle position.