PITTSBURGH — Right tackle Zach Banner has returned to Steelers practice this week, the first week he was eligible to come off the injured reserve list.
While he remains on that list for now, Banner’s return to practice is a strong sign that he will be ready to go in the next couple weeks. He will have to be activated from the injured reserve by Oct. 20.
That does not seem to be the case for the other two players on the Steelers’ injured reserve list: running back Anthony McFarland Jr. and defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
McFarland has been around team practices, though he is not permitted to participate until designated to return. Tuitt, on the other hand, has not been seen during the individual portions of practice that can be reported on.
Tuitt suffered a knee injury in training camp, while he was working his way back into shape after getting a late start on the season following the death of his brother this summer.
The Steelers have not identified the nature of the knee injury or given a prognosis for Tuitt, and head coach Mike Tomlin has been evasive when asked about the status of all of the players on the injured reserve.
On Thursday, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said that he “hopes” Tuitt returns to the Steelers this season, which is not exactly a strong vote of confidence.
“I hope he’s close,” Butler sad. “I hope he gets back to us. What’s that timeframe? I don’t know. I don’t know. He’s got some stuff there that he’s got to overcome. I’m gonna back him as much as I can. He’s a good football player and has been for us for a long time, so I’ll be glad when he gets back.”
With Tuitt out, Chris Wormley took over the end position in the base 3-4 defense, and Tyson Alualu replaced him in the most-common Nickel/Dime alignment. But not Alualu has also been lost to injury, a broken ankle that has him out indefinitely.
That’s move Wormley up to the starter in the sub packages. At nose tackle, backup Carlos Davis is also out with a knee injury, so Isaiah Buggs has slid from end to at nose tackle in 3-4.
The Steelers started the season with what looked to be an extremely deep group of defensive linemen, but that attrition has taken a toll. After Cam Heyward, Buggs and Wormley, the Steelers are down to Henry Mondeaux and rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk for depth.
That hasn’t hurt the Steelers in stopping the run yet, with Pittsburgh holding both the Las Vegas Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals under 100 yards rushing in consecutive losses.
But the lack of the depth on the line, along with injuries to Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt at outside linebacker, has taken a lot of punch out of the Pittsburgh pass rush. The Steelers did not sack or hit Joe Burrow on Sunday.
“I thought he got pressure early on, but for us, we’ve got to do a better job of stopping the run,” Heyward said. “A lot of times, they just didn’t put their quarterback in harmful situations. We’ve got to create a culture where he’s got to go out and play third and long or player longer fields. … We’ve got to do a better job of holding up on first and second down.”
The Steelers will not have an easy time of rectifying that on Sunday. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked just 20 times in the entire 2020 season.