(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday at his weekly press conference that left guard Matt Feiler and inside linebacker Robert Spillane could come off injured reserve and play in Sunday night's wild-card game against the Cleveland Browns. Spillane suffered a knee injury against the Washington Football Team in Week 13 and Feiler suffered a pectoral injury in Week 14 against the Buffalo Bills. A combination of Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen has filled in for the majority of the snaps in place of Spillane, while rookie Kevin Dotson has been at left guard the last three weeks.
With the potential of both Dotson and Spillane coming back on Sunday, the Steelers will be faced with some tough decisions on who to play.
"Hopefully, it produces some difficult challenges for us in terms of selecting who to utilize this weekend," Tomlin said. "We get a chance to infuse the four guys we chose to rest (in the regular-season finale) – Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, T.J. Watt, and Cam Heyward – back into the action. Some of the guys who maybe missed (that game) because of lack of health – Terrell Edmunds and Chris Boswell, for example – may get an opportunity to work their way back into the fold, and we should anticipate that.
"But we also have some guys who are getting clearance to work this week, and that work this week may produce an opportunity for them. Robert Spillane is a significant one, and Matt Feiler is another significant one. The inclusion or the potential inclusion of those guys is exciting, but it also creates some challenges from a decision-making standpoint, because we feel like we have some options. The guys who played in place of some of those guys have done good work for us. That's a good problem to have as we prepare this week."
Williamson and Allen have done a decent job filling in for Spillane, but it's obvious that the Steelers have been missing Spillane's presence. Allen is more of a hybrid linebacker, just switching to the position this year from safety, and Williamson has done OK as a run defender but has struggled in coverage at times. Williamson was traded by the New York Jets to the Steelers in early November, so he's probably still learning the nuances of the defense. Unlike Spillane, who's been with the team since 2019. Spillane overall is better against the run and in coverage.
Dotson has been outstanding in his rookie season and has really excelled in the last three games with Feiler out.
Dotson was excellent against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. He recorded 46 pass-blocking snaps and allowed a 0% pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus. The week before against the Indianapolis Colts, Dotson had 50 pass-blocking snaps on the day and didn’t allow a single pressure. Dotson started four games in the regular season (two at right guard and two at left guard) and played 358 offensive snaps.
Dotson has performed so well this season that he was named to PFF's 2020 All-Rookie Team. Here's an excerpt of what PFF said about the fourth-round pick out of the University of Louisiana. "Dotson allowed just one pressure -- a hurry -- the entire season in 206 pass-blocking snaps. That 0.5% pressure rate allowed is the lowest by any rookie offensive lineman with at least 150 pass-blocking snaps in the past 10 seasons. Ben Roethlisberger getting the ball out as quickly as he did play a role there, but Dotson deserves his credit, as well."
Feiler has not been great at left guard this season and is really probably more suitable to play right tackle, which he played the previous two seasons. That's why if Feiler is capable of returning to the lineup on Sunday, the Steelers should start Dotson at left guard instead of Feiler. The Steelers could possibly move Feiler to right tackle and have Chuks Okorafor sit, who has not been superb, but I don't know if Tomlin would want to do that much maneuvering to the offensive line this last in the season.
Tomlin, however, won't think about the possibilities unless Feiler can go.
"That doesn't become a component of play unless Feiler is viable," Tomlin said, "And so until Feiler becomes viable, I won't spend a lot of time pondering those things."
It should be an easy decision for Tomlin if Feiler is viable. Start Kevin Dotson at left guard. Likewise for Spillane at inside linebacker, if healthy.