The Steelers under Ben Roethlisberger have never been a tight end heavy offense, not even when the best tight end in franchise history, Heath Miller, was manning the position. So when the Steelers signed Eric Ebron, a receiving tight end who carried a reputation of being a bit of a head case signed with the team, most people expected him to be the #2 tight end, logging snaps mostly on passing downs and in the red-zone in two tight end sets.
That’s not what has happened.
Eric Ebron played all but 5 snaps in week 11. While injuries to Vance McDonald and Zach Gentry helped push that count to a season high, and the second highest percentage of snaps in his career, it wasn’t out of line with what he’s been doing recently. In the last 5 games, Eric Ebron has more snaps than any of the Steelers other receivers or backs, and is now only 3 snaps behind JuJu Smith-Schuster for the season.
Eric Ebron is also on pace to set his career high for snaps played in a season, needing 151 snaps to reach his 2016 mark of 708 snaps played. With 6 games left, and Ebron averaging 60 snaps a game since week 7, he should set a new career high this season.
Ebron’s contribution to the stat sheets hasn’t stood out as much. Ben Roethlisberger is still the quarterback, the offense is going to be wide receiver heavy like it always is. Ebron stands out on film where he is a matchup nightmare, even more so than in the past. The difference this year is in run blocking. A part of his game that hasn’t ever been considered a strength, but something he has shown desire and much better technique this season than in past seasons. For a tight end, mismatches can mostly be reduced to the overlap of defenders you can block and also beat in coverage. Ebron’s improvements in run blocking have made him a more dangerous weapon than he has been in past seasons, and he has clutch plays every week, including 3 touchdowns in the last 5 games to show for it.
Beyond Eric Ebron, it is good to see Derek Watt get 11 snaps, and it will be interesting to see if that continues, or if his emergency elevation to #2 tight end was the main driver. It stands out that the Steelers got past the 50 yards rushing barrier with Watt healthy and playing on offense a bit more. The wide receiver snap distribution seems to be settling into consistency, with James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud being used as depth matchup guys behind the main three of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.
James Conner’s snaps dropped this week after being so high in week 10, showing that it was likely a week 10 game plan thing, and not an abandonment of the strategy of keeping Conner’s usage in a good range.
The defensive back usage remains consistent, with Minkah Fitzpatrick only leaving the field when the Steelers have a commanding lead, Steven Nelson being replaced by Sean Davis against heavy sets (1 snap this week) and Terrell Edmunds being subbed out periodically for Cam Sutton or Mike Hilton in the Steelers 3-4 package.
Mike Hilton’s return saw him playing significantly less than before his injury, falling from above 70% of snaps to 36%. Similarly, Tyson Alualu played 30% of snaps in week 10, and bounced back to over 50% in week 11. Hopefully Hilton will be ready for Thursday, when his slot linebacker style of play is especially valuable.
Cameron Heyward saw reduced play time, as did Bud Dupree, with both under 40 snaps for the game. A nice drop from the roughly 60 snaps a game they had been averaging recently. Hopefully that leaves them is better shape for the matchup with Baltimore Thursday.
It was also nice to see a second game in a row with the depth players getting on the field, and it was nice to see them flying around the field making tackles and denying the Jaguars a first down to give Mason Rudolph the chance to increase his negative rushing yards total to 6 runs for -7 yards. Second string quarterback kneel downs are a great stat to rack up.
The only bad news on defense was Joe Haden leaving the game with an injury. the division of snaps between Justin Layne and Cameron Sutton will be interesting to watch if Joe Haden is limited or unavailable on Thursday.