The Steelers are on their bye week, so there’s no new snap counts to talk about. But while the Steelers got some time off, I wanted to take a look at the season so far and where Steelers players stand in snap counts, and what that tells us about the team so far.
Ben Roethlisberger has played every snap so far this season. The last time Ben Roethlisberger played 100% of offensive snaps for an entire season was in 2013, which is also the last time he led the team in offensive snaps.
While no offensive lineman has played every snap like Alejandro Villanueva used to, the line has been really consistent with snaps played so far, with the top 5 offensive lineman in snaps played account for 92.8% of total offensive line snaps. That’s an important factor in their improvement and growth as a unit.
JuJu Smith-Schuster led the Steelers receivers in snaps before his injury, and with Ray-Ray McCloud playing the majority of snaps in Week 6, the receiver room is definitely in flux. One of the more interesting snap count story lines going forward will be the division of play time between James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud and other options like using tight ends in the slot more.
The uptick in tight end usage and the big jump in production from the position in Week 6 is something I expect the Steelers to invest in. Rookies typically increase their play time and production after the bye week, and Pat Freiermuth seems like a logical player to experience a post-bye-week boost. Freiermuth leads the position in snaps, but only by a small amount, and while he has ~50% more targets than Eric Ebron, he is only fifth on the team in targets while leading the team in catch rate and ranking second in yards per target. Yards per target is a great stat when you are looking for a player that deserves a bigger share of the offense, and the Steelers lost one of their main targets for the season, so it makes sense for the Steelers to get the rookie more involved going forward.
Najee Harris is the main running back, and the most dynamic player on the offense. The Steelers are leaning on him heavily while also trying to not overwork the young man. Najee playing under 90% of snaps is good, but most people will likely be happy to see Kalen Ballage only 2 snaps behind Benny Snell for the #2 back title, and Derek Watt has the same number of snaps as Snell.
For special teams, only four players are getting snaps on offense while playing 20% or more of special teams snaps. Benny Snell and Derek Watt are situational players on offense, but they are key special teams players. Ray-Ray McCloud is a good punt returner and while his stats might not inspire Steeler Nation, he has more than held his own as a blocker, and he adds speed and elusiveness to the offense. Zach Gentry is becoming a valuable player for the Steelers as a good special teams player and a really good blocking tight end.
Lastly, Minkah Fitzpatrick has three offensive snaps, and the Steelers have three wins. Correlation, Causation? Who cares? All I know is if Minkah Fitzpatrick is on offense I’m going to be happy that week.
Minkah Fitzpatrick has a 100% win rate when he plays on offense and he still manages to play 100% of snaps on defense. He hasn’t been the interception machine we all want to see, but he’s got a lot of newer faces to cover for and he’s leading the team in tackles. That is a big clue. Minkah is still Minkah, he’s just been forced into a tougher role because the front seven hasn’t been as strong, and the secondary has a lot of new faces.
Terrell Edmunds has been quiet but playing well, he has been used a lot more in deep zone this season, a role he has greatly improved at since 2019. He was a big part of the Steelers effort to limit DK Metcalf in their win over Seattle, and the defensive adjustments that stopped Seattle’s third quarter momentum was largely based on T.J. Watt and Terrell Edmunds taking on a lot more responsibility. Edmunds isn’t what you expect from the position, but he truly is a jack of all trades player, and that versatility is valuable.
Cameron Sutton and Joe Haden are both in the 80% range, but only because they each missed a game. Both have played every snap they’ve been healthy for. James Pierre and Tre Norwood have both stepped up and played well for the Steelers. It looks like the Steelers ability to find good defensive backs coming out of college is improving. Justin Layne, the last corner drafted before Teryl Austin joined the Steelers staff has only played 9 snaps this season.
Joe Schobert ranking third, above both outside corners is surprising, but while Schobert is another not-splashy player, he’s been solid and reliable for the Steelers, and he’s gotten better the more time on the defense he’s had. Devin Bush’s return from his 2020 injury has been hampered with groin issues, but he’s still playing well, even if his range is reduced. Robert Spillane has taken over the dime linebacker job the last two weeks. Spillane was valued for his coverage and blitzing, and so far the results have been pretty good.
Cameron Heyward has been healthy all season, and yet is on pace to play a lower percentage of snaps than he has the last four seasons. With Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt out, the Steelers have relied on the depth and have avoided driving Heyward’s usage too high. That’s a good thing for a 32 year old lineman in his first 17 game regular season. His production hasn’t suffered at all though, he’s tied with Joe Schobert for second in team tackles, is second only to T.J. Watt in tackles for a loss, sacks and forced fumbles while leading, yes LEADING the Steelers in passes defended with 5 in six games. T.J. Watt is playing like a defensive player of the year, but I’d vote for Cameron Heyward as the Steelers MVP so far.
Chris Wormley has been the #2 defensive lineman, a big step up from his previous roles. He’s almost doubled his snap count from 2020 and should easily set a career high for snaps played this season. While it hasn’t been great, Wormley has been solid most of the time in his greatly expanded role. I have a hard time bashing a guy who was supposed to be our #4 DE for not being Stephon Tuitt. It should tell you how over his head he is when PFF grades him as a far better pass rusher than run stuffer (film backs that up too) and yet the Steelers have been taking him off the field in dime and playing Melvin Ingram inside instead.
Behind Heyward and Wormley the Steelers have a lot of role players that have had to step into bigger roles, and have had their ups and downs. Isaiah Buggs and Isaiahh Loudermilk have been solid in run defense but offer little at all in pass rush, and with Carlos Davis out Henry Mondeaux has gone from the practice squad to the #3 DL in snaps the past two games. The Steelers have based their defense off the talent on the defensive line for years, and a lot of the struggles this season are a direct result of the amount of talent that isn’t on the field.
Lastly, T.J. Watt has faced injury and missed a game, but even taking out the time he was hurt the Steelers have reduced his snap count a bit from the last three years. Watt has flourished in spite of that, as he has more sacks through 6 weeks than any other season in his career. He has more sacks after 4.5 games of action than he had through 7 games played the last two seasons when he was a DPOY candidate.
Behind Watt, the Steelers have Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith. Highsmith finally showed up in a meaningful way on the stat sheet in week 6, but he still trails Melvin Ingram in total snaps. Ingram’s snaps have dropped from the start of the season, but the Steelers are creating ways to get their edge rushers more snaps, and Ingram’s addition to the dime defense has improved their numbers in those sets substantially. He only has one sack, but he’s been a consistent pressure generator and opposing teams are getting rid of the ball faster when he is in. I think the week 6 drop in snaps was matchup based, I don’t expect Alex Highsmith to play 100% of snaps very often, I expect Ingram to be back in the 60% range going forward.
Miles Killebrew, Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III are the top special teams players, with Robert Spillane right behind them. James Pierre and Justin Layne have kept their special teams roles even as their snaps on defense have changed since last year. James Pierre is the only Steeler playing 40% of either offensive or defensive snaps while playing 40% of ST snaps.
The defense looks pretty well set, barring the return of Stephon Tuitt or more injuries I don’t expect much movement on snap counts.