It can be viewed as the professional football version of a hangover. What was so enjoyable and fun and quasi-euphoric the previous day quickly can turn into a blinding headache the next. And so it was for the Steelers, because while there was much to savor and enjoy from their season-opening win against the Giants on Monday night, their reality on Tuesday morning was that they may have lost much of their depth along the offensive line in addition to their starting running back.
During his weekly news conference at noon today, Coach Mike Tomlin said he didn't have a lot of new information regarding the status of starting right tackle Zach Banner (knee), Stefan Wisniewski (pectoral) who was filling in for starting right guard David DeCastro (calf), and starting running back James Conner (ankle). But he did outline some potential avenues the Steelers could explore with a game against the Denver Broncos set for 1 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field.
"I don't have a lot of new information, but I think it's safe to characterize Zach Banner as out for this week," said Tomlin. "We're still in the process of getting scans on Stefan Wisniewski and James Conner, but I think their forecast is a more favorable one, so we'll leave the light on for those two. We'll make some necessary adjustments and close ranks on a short week and see where that leaves us in terms of division of labor. We acknowledge that injuries are a part of the game, and while unfortunate for those men it could mean opportunity for other deserving and capable men, just like it was on Monday night for Benny Snell, and he put that on display."
Of the three injured players referenced by Tomlin, Conner was the first to be forced out of the game. After gaining 9 yards on six carries and catching two passes for 8 yards, Conner was replaced by Snell, who carried 19 times for 113 yards (5.9 average). And of the three players, Banner seemed to sustain the most serious injury judging from the reaction of his teammates and his own reaction once he got to the bench on the sideline.
"It can be a cold game, but it's a lot like life," said Tomlin about his emotional reaction to Banner's plight. "We're not defined by what happens to us, we're defined by how we respond to it. So whenever unfortunate events like that occur, we talk openly about that. It's not that he was injured after all he has been through and the fight he has been through to get where he is. It's about what he does moving forward and responding to it. He's a competitor, he's a professional, and I expect him to smile in the face of adversity."
Banner had earned the starting right tackle job this summer in what Tomlin described as a close competition with Chuks Okorafor, and so the plan of succession at that position seems self-evident.
"We've talked quite a bit about Chuks along with Zach Banner and the battle they had for right tackle, and as I've said repeatedly I thought both guys were starter-capable, and I still feel that way," said Tomlin. "So I'm extremely comfortable with Chuks and his ability to play, and his overall readiness."
But right guard is less certain. When asked about DeCastro's status, Tomlin said, "I don't know. I'm hopeful that he's able to work (Wednesday). We'll see." If DeCastro is incapable of practicing/playing this week, and if Wisniewski's pectoral injury eliminates him for a week or longer, the next man up as currently indicated by the depth chart would be rookie Kevin Dotson.
"Dotson is a young guy who hasn't had a lot of work throughout this process because of injury and a lack of availability, and so there's some angst there," said Tomlin. "If he's called upon this week, it's going to take a tremendous effort by him and by us, and by us I mean us putting him in the very best position to perform. So there's some dual responsibility there."
What doesn't seem to be an option at this point is moving starting left guard Matt Feiler back to tackle.
"We're making some moves on the offensive line, and so I won't speculate on what our depth or the pecking order will be until we handle that necessary business," said Tomlin. "But I do like the play of Matt at guard, I did like his play (against the Giants). I know he is tackle-capable, and I'm sure that will be an element of the discussion at the appropriate time."
Before Tomlin even was finished with his news conference, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle reported the Steelers signed Jerald Hawkins off the Houston Texans' practice squad. Hawkins, 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, is a tackle who was selected by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. During his time in Pittsburgh, Hawkins ended up on injured reserve two different times, and since entering the NFL he has appeared in only six games with one start.
Also in the mix as one of the eight offensive linemen on the team's initial 53-man roster is J.C. Hassenauer, a first-year pro from Alabama who signed with the team as a free agent in 2019.
"J.C. has been in our program. He was on our practice squad last year," said Tomlin. "He's a very capable backup, a guy we're comfortable with in terms of knowing what to do and having an understanding of his skill-set. He's an interior backup rotational player and is capable of being called upon if need be."