Mike Tomlin’s team isn’t as healthy as it anticipated, but these guys may hold the key to a Week 1 win.
After an NFL team plays its final game, all glances are directed towards Week 1—for a fresh start not just in terms of play, but also in terms of injuries.
Unfortunately for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the notion of a little-bruised roster going into the opener won’t be true.
Thankfully, the Steelers seem to have avoided any sort of major wounds aside from cornerback DeMarkus Acy’s torn ACL in early August, though he presumably would not have made the 53-man roster. Nonetheless, Dr. James Bradley has already seen his fair share of patients earlier than he would have liked, including Stephon Tuitt, Anthony McFarland and Zach Banner—all of whom were placed on injured reserve.
Under the league’s definition of IR, Tuitt, McFarland and Banner are out at least three weeks, meaning they will have to occupy Highmark Stadium’s sidelines in street clothes. Beyond that duration, though, uncertainty abounds—though no rumors have indicated that any is likely to miss an extended period.
The loss of Tuitt simply cannot be overstated: in 15 games last season, he posted a career-high 11 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 36 pressures. Additionally, Banner was poised to start at right tackle after playing just 63 snaps a season ago, though that will be put on hold as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. And while he isn’t RB1—that title is held by the nascent Najee Harris—McFarland’s desires to turn heads and emerge as a viable backup in his second year will incur a detour.
Sans the aforementioned three players, numerous Steelers must capitalize on little depth at their positions and even buoy the entire team. Let’s take a look at a particular five individuals who face an added burden entering Week 1.
When the Steelers signed Ballage to a one-year deal worth less than $1 million on March 30, little was expected for the former Chargers backup. But with McFarland down, Ballage could be a staple of Pittsburgh’s rushing attack.
Ballage showed flashes of his ability during the preseason, as he tallied 14 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown. Moreover, after Austin Ekeler got hurt a year ago, Ballage posted two games of over 68 rushing yards.
After a solid showing in Pittsburgh’s matchups prior to the regular season, McFarland was effectively squared away as the team’s RB2. Now, that job appears far more open; though Benny Snell is listed as Harris’ backup on the Steelers’ official depth chart, that role is definitely mutable.
At 6’2”, Ballage combines physicality with solid speed. If the Arizona State alumnus can come out of the bullpen for Harris as well as he did with Ekeler, his totes would definitely be a big boost for the Steelers.
Dan Moore, Jr.
Steelers fans may be familiar with Moore largely due to being paired with his Texas A&M teammate, Buddy Johnson, during the 2021 NFL Draft. When the Steelers wrote down Moore’s name in the 4th round, he was viewed as more of an offensive line project teeming with potential—yet few expected him to see the playing field right away.
Given that Banner is not fully healthy, Moore will slot in at left tackle and is poised to be Pittsburgh’s LT1 for at least the first three weeks—especially since former Buccaneer Joe Haeg had a lackluster preseason.
The good news? Moore had been performing so solidly that some had even pegged him as the Steelers’ starter regardless of injury, garnering the acclaim of Pro Football Focus as the highest-graded rookie seen thus far.
Highest-graded rookies this preseason:
OT Dan Moore Jr., Steelers (82.1)
OT Sam Cosmi, Washington (81.8)
LB Buddy Johnson, Steelers (81.1)
QB Mac Jones, Patriots (79.5)
DI Isaiahh Loudermilk, Steelers (78.3) pic.twitter.com/CbYOjM7b8a
— PFF (@PFF) August 13, 2021
Without a doubt, there’s also considerable pressure resting upon the shoulders of Chukwuma Okorafor, who is on the precipice of beginning a contract year. In my opinion, though, Moore has more (no pun intended) at stake given the opportunity to prove himself as a centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s offensive line for years to come.
In his first year with the Steelers—and on the “good side” after coming over from Baltimore, if you will—Wormley was largely utilized as a rotational defensive lineman, starting in just one contest and appearing on only 14% of defensive snaps. 2021 will seemingly provide a different tenor without the all-world Tuitt in Weeks 1-3, if not more.
As the Steelers’ defense lines up against Bills’ first snap of the season, Wormley will join Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu along the interior of Pittsburgh’s defensive line as the squad’s starting defensive end.
Wormley will have a bonafide chance to prove his mettle for the rest of the season and build upon improved pass rush numbers in 2020, as his hurry and hit percentages each jumped 6.4% (2.3% to 8.7%), per Sports Info Solutions.
Buggs’ situation is analogous to Wormley’s, although I feel that even more is on the line for the Alabama product.
Since being taken in the 6th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, professional football has been an uphill battle for Buggs, who has started just one game in his career and suffered several injuries last season. In fact, few expected Buggs to make the Steelers’ roster given the re-signing of Alualu, the selection of Isaiahh Loudermilk and the emergence of Carlos Davis, the latter of whom has arguably supplanted Buggs.
Buggs hasn’t had many iconic moments in the black and gold thus far. If he’s able to change the tide along a weaker defensive line than usual, he could carve out a role for this season and more; if not, his time in the Steel City is growing thin.
While Steelers fans were mired in analyzing the performance of Dwayne Haskins in the team’s final preseason game against the Panthers, yet another injury was suffered: linebacker Marcus Allen tweaked his hamstring. As of now, Allen is listed as questionable for Week 1.
Given Allen’s hamstring concerns, especially considering his somewhat scary injury history, the Steelers could find themselves down an ILB at Buffalo. Couple that with the fact that Devin Bush will be playing his first regular season game since tearing his ACL—the Steelers very well could have Bush on a pitch count—and it becomes clear that another member of Pittsburgh’s linebacking corps will have to play a prominent role.
Enter Robert Spillane.
After Bush’s catastrophic injury last year, Spillane filled in quite nicely, including collecting an electric pick-six of Lamar Jackson and stonewalling Derrick Henry at the one-yard line. But as the season wore on, it became clear that for as much of a thumper as Spillane is, his skills in coverage were simply not up to snuff.
Due to worry that Spillane could be a fallible starter beside Bush, Kevin Colbert shrewdly pulled the trigger on Joe Schobert. While the Steelers’ defense was holistically upgraded, Spillane’s usage has certainly come into question.
It’s possible that Bush may play the vast majority of snaps against the Bills and have Allen fill in for him. However, that situation seems unlikely given Mike Tomlin’s desires to avoid putting players in overly strenuous situations, especially so early on.
Overall, it’s more likely than not that Spillane sees the field—if he can harness the magic of his 2020, Spillane can ease any disquiet regarding both his coverage abilities and his tenure in Pittsburgh.