PITTSBURGH — Zach Banner had a great day of practice on Thursday.
The Steelers tackle is certain of that much. What happens next after that great practice, he seems less sure of.
Banner won the team’s starting right tackle job coming out of training camp in 2020, but suffered and ACL injury in the season opener against the New York Giants last year.
He returned for training camp and practiced with the team and played in the Steelers’ third preseason game against the Detroit Lions. After that, he was shut back down and eventually placed back on the injured reserve list. Banner was less than forthcoming about what happened in August to derail his progress when speaking with the media on Thursday for the first time since training camp.
“I’m not allowed to talk about what happened,” Banner said. “You can call it a setback. … I don’t want to feel like I was lying to you guys. I had a setback. We expected to be back by Week 1. I wasn’t. It’s not me, it’s not coaches, it’s my body. It was just the coaches telling me that.”
As for when he might return, Banner was designated to return from injured reserve last Wednesday. He has three weeks during which he can practice before the team has to make a decision on whether to move him to the active roster or leave him on the injured reserve list for the rest of 2021, and that time period reach its halfway point after Thursday’s practice.
“I just had a really good practice,” Banner said, but he also knows that one good practice is not going to get him immediately put back on the 53-man roster.
“It’s not so much about having good practices. I had OK practices, good practices during camp. But it’s the next day. It’s how it feels the next day after that and the next day after that. I have to be reliable. That’s the biggest thing you have to realize. Every single one of those 53 roster spots means something. It means somebody’s going to do something to contribute to the team. I cannot take up one of those spots until I can contribute to the team. Otherwise, I’m just hurting the team. And I’m OK with that. I’m a team guy first.”
It’s unclear what role Banner will fill if he does return to the lineup. The Steelers used Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle and Chukwuma Okorafor at right tackle for their first three gams. Last week, Joe Haeg filled in at right tackle while Okorafor was in the concussion protocol.
Haeg played well, with the offensive line’s play getting credit from head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada this week in both doing a better job of moving the running game along and keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright.
Where does that leave Banner when healthy? It’s not clear right now, and doesn’t appear to be clear to him, either. The only thing Banner knows is that he’s ready to get back onto the field.
“I want to play,” he said. “It’s the coaches pulling the leash. I’m not making that up. I’m not leaning on them. I’m just telling you the truth. I want to play. I’m ready to play.”