The NFL season is a grind, and injuries occur both large and small, some don’t even make the injury reports. At the same time, coaches are scheming to find matchups that exploit the defense or better fit the game plan for that week. There are lots of things that can explain a small shift in the snap count pecking order.
But whatever the reasons, we saw some interesting changes to what we had been seeing so far this season.
Well, hello there Jaylen Samuels. A few weeks after I had written Samuels off because of his drop to 5th in running back snaps and his low number of special teams snaps, the running back out of N.C. State jumped all the way back up to second in snap counts. But it isn’t because he beat out Benny Snell as the No. 2 back.
Derek Watt was out again this week, and while defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux filled in for his fullback duties, Jaylen Samuels was on the field with James Conner in some of the Steelers wingback formations in Derek Watt’s spot. He ran a jet sweep for 5 yards and was open for a shovel pass on James Conner’s touchdown reception in the first quarter.
Jaylen Samuels thrived in Matt Canada’s system as a wingback in college, and he finally got his shot to play that role for the Steelers this week. Outside of Samuels, the running back snaps stand out because the balance the Steelers had been maintaining between the backs was scrapped in favor of playing James Conner the vast majority of the snaps. Conner played 66 snaps, the highest total and percentage of snaps Conner has played since November 25th of 2018. It also coincided with a pass heavy game plan and the second fewest runs by the Steelers in a game this season.
Also reaching a high snap count was Eric Ebron, who played the highest number of snaps that he has played for the Steelers, the fifth highest count of his career, and the highest since September 30th, 2018. Vance McDonald played only 35 snaps, his lowest total of the season.
Diontae Johnson returned to the Steelers line-up, and JuJu Smith-Schuster returned to the top of the receiver snap counts, hopefully that number, and his production in the game, are signs that the nagging knee injury that has had him on the injury report each week isn’t affecting him anymore.
Interestingly, the wide receiver room is down to Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud playing special teams, and Claypool only played 8 snaps, as his special teams work continues to be limited as he still leads the team in receiving yards.
Eighteen special teams snaps from the receiver room is a really low number for the Steelers.
The Steelers are the only undefeated team team in the NFL, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is the only Steeler to have played every snap on defense this season. Joe Haden lost his membership in that group by missing one snap in Week 7. The offense also has one player, Alejandro Villanueva, that has played all the offensive snaps.
If you look to the very bottom of the list of defensive snaps you will find something far more interesting. Jordan Dangerfield played one snap on defense. Right below him, Sean Davis played zero. This is a startling development. After all, when Sean Davis, the starting free safety was injured at the start of 2019, the Steelers started Kam Kelly at free safety, and even as Kam Kelly showed he was an enormous liability on the field, Jordan Dangerfield played only special teams.
When Sean Davis was brought back head coach Mike Tomlin lauded both Davis’s special teams ability and his ability to be a starter-quality backup at both free and strong safety. There should not be a role on defense that Jordan Dangerfield plays better than Sean Davis. Whatever is going on with the Steelers and Sean Davis is something to see how far Davis has fallen from a competent, but not flashy free safety to ranking below Jordan Dangerfield in a little over one year.
Another interesting move is the rise of Ulysees Gilbert III from the inactive list to playing linebacker ahead of Marcus Allen, who has held one of the active linebacker spots on the roster every game this season. The strange thing is Gilbert III played more special teams snaps than Allen as well. Meaning the Steelers had an inactive player they like better on defense and on special teams than the guy that beat him out for an active roster spot. I’ve been saying that Ulysees Gilbert III is in the dog house, and Week 7 seems to back that up. Because the snap counts from Week 7 tell us it wasn’t the level of play on the field that had Ulysees Gilbert III sitting behind Marcus Allen.
For a side note, it lines up nicely that the second game Mike Hilton (the last Isaac Redman award winner active for the Steelers this season) has missed since he first made the roster in 2017 was the game Ulysees Gilbert III made his return to the field, and his first game playing for the Steelers on defense. That keeps the streak of games with an Isaac Redman Award winner contributing to the Steelers defense since Week 7 of the 2015 season intact.
Lastly, Robert Spillane was on a limited snap count, and yet he only played 2 fewer snaps than Vince Williams did. Williams took on the harder assignments in the game, but it was good to see Robert Spillane play above the line in his first start. I praised Spillane in the offseason as being a more athletic version of Tyler Matakevitch, but now it looks like the Steelers may have found another Vince Williams. Hopefully Spillane can continue to develop and be a solid player for the Steelers as a reserve or starter in the future.