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Week 6 snap counts show Steelers stars rising, and falling

Steelers snap counts show again the value of depth on an NFL roster.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers won impressively over the Cleveland Browns in week 6, and there are plenty of storylines to talk about from the game. Often overlooked in the surge of stats and film each week is the amount of information that can be gleaned from the snap counts. But while stats and film can tell you what players did, the snap count tells you what the coaches think of the players on the team, and there’s a lot to see, especially this week.


Offense

First off we need to cover the offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey is the only lineman I saw missing time due to injury, as he was walking gingerly on his left ankle in the fourth quarter, and after a few plays Ben Roethlisberger talked to him and swapped J.C. Hassenauer in for him, and Pouncey wouldn’t return. It was his wrapped foot that had him on the injury report, so while it hopefully (and likely) isn’t serious, it tells you a lot about Roethlisberger and Pouncey’s relationship that Roethlisberger kicked him off the field. Pouncey doesn’t just take himself out of a game.

Jerald Hawkins played 10 snaps, seven of them as an extra lineman. Interestingly, Hawkins played left tackle more than once, while Alejandro Villanueva moved outside Chukwuma Okorafor where the 6th lineman usually lines up. They also played Villanueva there on a jet sweep with Vance McDonald lined up as the left tackle. Unbalanced lines are something the Steelers are using, and Villenueva is the guy they move around the most.

The other 3 snaps Hawkins played came in the victory formation. Hawkins came in for Okorafor, Derwin Gray replaced Matt Feiler, and Minkah Fitzpatrick was the safety on those three plays.

Mason Rudolph got to play late in the 4th quarter, and you can’t ask for a more poetic result for the young man than taking three knees in the victory formation while Myles Garrett sat on the bench watching him. Wherever you are Freddy Kitchens, just know that Pittsburgh finished it again.

With Diontae Johnson out and JuJu Smith-Schuster playing on a banged up knee that has had him on the injury report since week 3, Chase Claypool led all backs and receivers in snaps, playing 78% of offensive snaps, his highest of the season. It also stands out that as Claypool reached his highest percentage of offensive snaps, his special teams snaps were cut again. Claypool was in the 50% range weeks 1 and 2, the 35% range weeks 3 and 5, and in week 6 that fell to 22%. Claypool still is a gunner on punts and kickoffs and up-back on kick returns, but the gunner job now seems to be in a rotation with James Pierre taking Claypool’s spot on a good number of kicks and punts.

Eric Ebron played a little less and Vance McDonald a little more than usual, but that is likely due to running the ball more. Derek Watt only played 4 snaps, and the Steelers did not use him late in the game when they were running out the clock, and I couldn’t find him on any of the special teams plays late in the game either, so he might have re-aggravated his injury, or he was held out as a precaution with the game well in hand.

At running back the Steelers continue to mix in other runners to limit James Conner’s carries, even as Conner was having a phenomenal game. If you ignore quarterback runs, Conner received 20 of the 31 carries (64.5%), which lines up well with his percentage of running back snaps. While Conner gained 101 yards (5.1 ypc) and a TD on those 20 carries, the other non-QB runners gained 26 yards and a TD on 11 carries (2.4 ypc). The important part isn’t how productive the other runs are, it is Conner’s health and keeping him running effectively for the playoffs.

One last interesting bit from the offense is Jaylen Samuels, who again barely played, but was kept on the roster over Trey Edmunds. Edmunds played more total snaps in week 5 than Jaylen Samuels has in any game since week 1 when Conner was out for a lot of the game. What it tells me is the Steelers aren’t fully confident in Anthony McFarland being able to take over the third down back job if Conner misses time in-game. If that changes Jaylen Samuels may find himself off the roster.


Defense

At the top of the defensive snap counts the trends continue, with Terrell Edmunds even missing three snaps so Mike Hilton could play safety in the Steelers 3-4 sets before Hilton left with an injury.

Mike HIlton left the game in the second half, driving up Cameron Sutton’s snaps but also leading to Justin Layne’s first three defensive snaps of his career. On those snaps he took over the right outside corner position for Steven Nelson, and Nelson played in the slot.

That will be important to watch out for is Mike Hilton is limited against Tennessee, as A.J. Brown and the potential return of Corey Davis from the Covid list will create tough matchups on the outside.

T.J. Watt played a season high 89% of defensive snaps while Bud Dupree played a season low 81%, but neither has dropped below 80% and Bud Dupree has hit 90%+ only once, so they are both in their normal range. After a week 5 with no snaps, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi played 9 snaps in week 6, although most were with the game well in hand, and the final numbers show Highsmith and Adeniyi splitting snaps again.

With Devin Bush hurt, Robert Spillane stepped in for him and played every snap of the game after Bush left. Spillane played in week 1, when Vince Williams missed part of the game, so he appears to be the most trusted linebacker after Bush and Williams.

Robert Spillane has looked good in the snaps he has played, and the loss of Devin Bush won’t show up in the stat sheets, as Bush wasn’t wracking up numbers this season. But Devin Bush will be missed, a lot of the harder assignments Bush was responsible for are unlikely to be passed on to Spillane, and the Steelers will likely have to simplify the defense and put more responsibility on Vince Williams, which could affect his dynamic production to this point in the season. Williams leads the NFL with 10 tackles for a loss, just ahead of T.J. Watt’s 9 tackles for a loss.

On the defensive line Cameron Heyward’s snaps are slowly increasing, while Stephon Tuitt’s are trending in the 70% range instead of the usual 80%+ that he was playing earlier in his career. The Steelers seem to be rotating him out more to keep him fresh, and it is paying off, as Tuitt through 5 games is having another monster season.

2019 through game 5: 3.5 sacks, 22 tackles, 6 TFL, 6 QB hits
2020 through game 5: 4.0 sacks, 16 tackles, 3 TFL, 12 QB hits

The Steelers defensive line is dominating, and while Tuitt isn’t getting the press he got last year, he is playing just as good as he was in 2019 at this point of the season.

Chris Wormley dropped down the snap count list in week 5, but against the Browns he jumped back ahead of Isaiah Buggs. With Buggs and Wormley both having experience their play is likely based on matchups.

In special teams news, James Pierre took a big step up in snaps, going from just under 40% to 70% of snaps, rotating into the gunner roles Chase Claypool has played this season. James Pierre showed up on film and in the stats with a special teams tackle this week.

One of Tomlin’s favorite sayings is “next man up,” and while we saw the limits of that philosophy last season, it will be tested again, as the Steelers will replace a young star who was a top ten draft pick out of a major college program with an undrafted special teams player from the MAC on his second team in only three seasons.

That will be a major story for the rest of this 2020 season, and how the Steelers deal with that transition will be a big factor in how the story of the 2020 season ends.