Aside from a new offensive coordinator, a new feature running back, and a rejuvenated QB entering what could be the final season of his Hall of Fame career, the starting offensive tackle duo of Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner are the Steelers’ biggest X-factors for the 2021 season, according to Bleacher Report.
Brad Gagnon, an NFL analyst for the site, cheated slightly in the X-factor exercise and listed both Okorafor and Banner as the team’s X-factors on a rebuilt offensive line looking to re-establish the running game in 2021.
Banner returns from a Week 1 torn ACL against the New York Giants after 59 offensive snaps at MetLife Stadium, while Okorafor — after starting all 15 games last season at right tackle in place of Banner — slides over to the left side to replace longtime veteran Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle after Villanueva signed with the rival Baltimore Ravens.
Two new full-time starting tackles in a new offensive system in front of a 39-year-old QB in Ben Roethlisberger can be a bit nerve-racking, which leads to the X-factor label from Gagnon.
“An argument could be made that first-round rookie running back Najee Harris is the ultimate X-factor for a Pittsburgh team in desperate need of a jolt to remain a contender in 2021. But this will almost certainly remain a pass-first team under gunslinger quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and both the tackles will have to hold up in unfamiliar territory,” Gagnon writes. “Chukwuma Okorafor had his share of struggles in place of injured right tackle Zach Banner last year, but with Banner returning and two-time Pro Bowler Alejandro Villanueva gone, Okorafor will move to Big Ben’s blind side.
“Is the 2018 third-round pick ready for that? And how will the huge and tantalizing but still unproven Banner (6’8″, 335 lbs) bounce back from a lost season due to a torn ACL? If both players shine, it could make it possible for Roethlisberger, Harris and Co. to keep the Steelers in contention. But the opposite could easily happen as well.”
It’s hard to envision the Steelers being a pass-first offense in 2021 — as Gagnon believes — after investing so heavily in improving the run game. If it’s still a significant gap between passing attempts and rushing attempts like it was in 2020, something went terribly wrong and the Steelers likely fell out of contention quickly.
Okorafor and Banner will have to show they can hold up in unfamiliar territory, no doubt. The move from right tackle to left tackle is tough no matter who you are, so all eyes will be on Okorafor, who is embracing the challenge and looking to truly prove himself in the NFL, position be damned.
As for Banner, people seem to forget he won the starting right tackle job outright in training camp last summer and is only an afterthought at the moment due to his knee injury so early in the season. He was out of sight, out of mind throughout the 2020 season due to the Week 1 injury, but it’s unwise to count this guy out, considering all that he’s gone through to get where he is today.
The duo is certainly a fair choice for 2021 X-factors for the Steelers, one that will have a big impact on the success or failure of the Steelers’ offense under Matt Canada.