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Mike Tomlin discusses the value in limiting playing time for Steelers’ rookies

The Steelers have intentionally withheld both Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson in certain situations

NFL: DEC 01 Browns at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In his weekly press conference on Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about the progression of the Steelers 2019 rookie class. With several rookies, both drafted and undrafted, contributing to the Steelers at this time, it is reaching an interesting point of the year as most players are not used to the length of an NFL football season.

During the press conference, Tomlin was specifically asked if he had seen growth in the Steelers’ rookies from month to month.

“I think exposure is good,” Tomlin answered. “Provided there’s a couple caveats to that. It’s not too much exposure, and too much exposure can be negative in young guys, and that’s why we’ve been thoughtful about the exposure of these people. That’s why we don’t play Devin Bush in all packages, although he has the talent level to play in all packages.”

The Steelers have varied their philosophy with the Bush so far in 2019. For the first two games, Bush logged between 75% and 80% of the snaps on defense. In weeks three and four, Bush was on the field for every single snap on defense followed by 91% and 89% in Weeks 5 and 6 respectively. Coming out of the bye, Bush played 100% of the snaps against the Dolphins and 94% against the Colts.

After hitting the midpoint game of the season, Bush has seen his percentage of snaps played change significantly. He was only on the field for 45% of the defensive plays against the Rams followed by 77%, 61%, 74%, and 75%. So after using Bush heavily in games two through eight, the Steelers have been much more intentional about his usage.

When it comes to the Steelers second selection in the 2019 NFL draft, third-round pick Diontae Johnson is leading the Steelers in snaps among the wide receivers. The biggest reason for this is out of the Steelers “big three,” Johnson is the only one to play in every game. In order to limit his snaps, Coach Tomlin explained how the Steelers are intentional about how often Johnson is used.

“That’s why we’re thoughtful about the things that we’ve asked Diontae to do,” Tomlin explained. “He doesn’t play 60 snaps a game, and has not, although he’s been available to us because we wanted to manage that exposure because too much exposure is negative, but also, we realize that as we push into game 14, that most of these guys, unless they played at Alabama or somewhere, are in uncharted territory, and so we’re thoughtful about that exposure.”

When it comes to Diontae Johnson’s snap counts, he has only eclipsed 50 in a game twice in his NFL career. Against the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams, Johnson saw season-high snaps of 53 in each game.

When it comes to the other rookies on the Steelers team, no other player has played in all 12 games. Justin Layne has been back-and-forth as an active player on game day and tight end and Zach Gentry has been somewhat the same with the majority of his games being inactive. Benny Snell Jr. missed several games as he recovered from knee surgery and Isaiah Buggs was the odd man out on the defensive line until after the bye. The only other drafted rookie to make the team was Ulysees Gilbert III who was placed on IR after Week 9. Undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges has only seen snaps in five games. Therefore, Bush and Johnson are the main concern when it comes to over usage.

With circumstances dictating the playing time with so many other players, the two main rookies who have been on the field in each game are players Coach Tomlin would like to see perform without a drop off through the entire season and playoffs.

“We want them to be young people on the rise as we get to this portion of the season,” Tomlin stated. “Sometimes that is not within your control. Sometimes availability or lack of availability of others dictates that.”

A prime example of a situation dictating playing time came in 2018 when first-round draft pick Terrell Edmunds was forced to play the most snaps for the Steelers for the season. With Morgan Burnett dealing with injuries early, Edmund was forced into playing 93% of the snaps on defense along with 49% of the snaps on special teams.

Not wanting to inhibit any progression with the 2019 rookies, circumstances have played in the Steelers favor with being able to limit snaps.

“But when given an opportunity, we like to be thoughtful about the long-range growth and development of these guys so that we’re having these types of discussions in December. That we’re talking about those guys being young men on the rise, as opposed to guys that are hanging on by a thread.”

With the Steelers looking to push ahead and qualify for the postseason, the fact they must be concerned with wearing out their rookies is one of those interesting circumstances they’re grateful to have to deal with. Over the final three games, taking care of business on the field with the players who give the Steelers the best chance to win should be the highest priority. Since the Steelers were intentional with the handling of their rookies so far in 2019, they will hopefully continue to play at a level which would warrant their participation.