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Four thoughts on the Steelers’ player usage in the first 4 games

Special teams, Defensive formations and Mason Rudolph’s favorite target.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I like to dig into some lesser followed stats periodically, and after the first quarter of the season, some interesting things are showing up in how the Steelers have been using their players.

Ulysees Gilbert III is a stud

So far this season Ulysees Gilbert III has played 90 of the 106 special teams snaps the Steelers have logged. That’s 84.9% of ST snaps. The only special teams assignments he doesn’t get in on are FG and XP attempts. Those plays use the long snapper, kicker, offensive line and tight ends. He plays on the normal 4 ST units (kickoffs, kickoff returns, punt and punt returns) but also FG and XP defense where he plays alongside most of the starting defense, something no other ST focused player has done for the Steelers since they started tracking snaps in 2012.

He may not have any snaps on defense yet, but the way he is playing on special teams, Ulysees Gilbert III has made himself one of the most valuable backups on the team, and a lock to be active every week.

Other ST regulars that impact the roster

A few other players stand out for their ST numbers, and it may say a good bit about their value and future on the team.

Johnny Holton: Despite not recording a catch this season, he ranks 7th on the team with 58 ST snaps, where he is an excellent gunner, so expect him to keep a hat and keep getting opportunities on offense.

Artie Burns: Artie has played exactly half of the Steelers ST snaps, and he has filled in for Joe Haden in the 2 snaps Haden has missed. Expect him to continue to get a hat and be the #3 outside corner. Hopefully Nelson and Haden stay healthy.
As a side note Justin Layne was only active for the SF game and only played 2 ST snaps.

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi: He said he was told to work on ST to make the roster, and it paid off. While Tuzar Skipper is fighting to get on the field in NY, Adeniyi is playing almost 60% of ST snaps and has 26 defensive snaps. He was playing ST before Chickillo got hurt, so it isn’t just next man up. His play should make for an interesting situation heading into next season.

It is unlikely that Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo will both be on this team in 2020. If Bud Dupree is let go, Anthony Chickillo will be the most veteran OLB on the team and the team would be unlikely to start Adeniyi and bring in a new backup, or bring in a FA or draft pick with Adeniyi as the main backup. If the Steelers resign Dupree, Chickillo is worth ~4 million in savings that would be valuable for cap space. Either way Olasunkanmi Adeniyi’s ST play and increasing snaps on defense almost guarantees either Dupree or Chickillo will be gone after this season.

Defensive Formations

Looking through defensive snap counts, and checking film to verify, I ran across a few interesting tidbits so far in this season.

Dime may be out for the season.
The first two games of the year the Steelers used Dime defense 13 times in 148 snaps (8.8%). Since the trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers haven’t used Dime at all. That made sense with the heavy sets the 49ers were using, but the Bengals were one of the top passing teams and were using plenty of WR heavy sets. It appears that the Steelers are comfortable keeping 2 LBs on the field with Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety. Considering the success in limiting big plays since he joined the team, I think that kind of trust is warranted.

Big Nickel finally shows up.
After hearing about and discussing the Steelers big nickel defense a lot in the offseason, the Steelers didn’t use it at all until the Cincinnati game where it was used for one snap. Hilton and Sutton have been splitting nickel duties, but against Cincinnati Kameron Kelly played one snap as the nickel defender. Whether that was just garbage time usage or the start of the big nickel comeback we’ll have to see. Remember the Chargers had a lot of success using safety heavy packages against the Ravens last year, and the Cleveland Browns used 3 safeties on 58 of their 69 snaps last week in their Baltimore Beatdown.

Is Rudolph playing favorites?

Since Mason Rudolph took over for Ben Roethlisberger in week 2 he has thrown 74 passes. Rudolph has targeted JuJu Smith-Schuster 16 times, for 153 yards and a TD and targeted Diontae Johnson 15 times for 146 yards and 2 TDs.

If you break it down by game though, Diontae Johnson has been gaining on Smith-Schuster every game, and the only reason Johnson isn’t Rudolph’s #1 WR is JuJu taking a short pass for a 76 yard TD in week 3. Diontae Johnson leads the team in targets, receiving yards and TDs in Rudolph’s two starts.

This is something to watch going forward, as teams adjust their defense to account for Johnson. Is it just JuJu Smith-Schuster drawing coverage and creating opportunities for Johnson, or are Rudolph and Johnson developing a Wi-Fi connection?

Just to note, Diontae Johnson has 7 more targets and 69 more yards than JuJu Smith-Schuster had at this point in his phenomenal rookie season.