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Week 8 snap counts show young Steelers stepping up in big win over the Browns

The youth of the Pittsburgh Steelers was a weakness earlier this season, it’s turning into a strength.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers went into Cleveland and beat the Browns to improve to 4-3, pulling above .500 three weeks after many people had them dead and buried at 1-3. Let’s take a look at the players that made it happen.


Offense

It’s always good when the offensive line and quarterback play 100% of the snaps on offense. It’s even better when it is the same offensive line and quarterback that started Week 1. With injuries elsewhere on offense and on defense, the continuity on the offensive line has led to a lot of growth, and while they are still inconsistent and a work in progress, you can’t watch the game they just put on film and say too much bad about a young line that just pushed around the 2nd ranked run defense in the NFL. I know they had penalties, but they made up for that in my mind by consistently winning the line of scrimmage and leading the way for an offense that had only three 3-and-out drives in 9 attempts, and who leads the league in short yardage third down conversions.

Since the draft it has been clear the Steelers’ season would be determined by whether the line could come together before Ben Roethlisberger was hurt. It looks like they are pulling that off.

The Steelers used all 4 running backs in this game, and all four touched the ball. While Najee Harris had a good game, his backups again tell the story of how important Najee is to this offense with their 2 carries for -2 yards and 1 reception for 7 yards on 3rd and 8 combined. The other concern on the offense was finding a second back that could take a meaningful amount of carries from Najee Harris to help keep the young star from being overworked in his rookie season. That quest is ongoing.

Chase Claypool set a career mark for percentage of snaps played, while Diontae Johnson now has three games in a row playing 92% of snaps, creating a 4-way tie for his most snaps played. Three straight games with different offensive snap totals and a player playing 92% in all three is statistically improbable enough to merit a mention here. Ray-Ray McCloud apparently was a matchup play in week 6, as his snaps fell substantially from the career high of 69% of snaps he logged against the Seahawks.

Zach Gentry had a nice game, setting the high mark of his young career in snaps, targets, receptions and yards. Matt Canada uses Gentry in screen passes to counterpunch the defense focusing on Najee Harris, and it works well. Gentry is a superb blocker and shows good hands. On top of that, he’s a big target and runs hard with the ball.

Pat Freiermuth also played the most snaps of his young career, tying his high of 7 targets and recording his second touchdown on an incredible catch that rewarded the Steelers for increasing his usage.

The tight ends accounted for 31.6% of the Steelers passing yards, it’s been a while since that has happened.


Defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed to run extra clock in their final possession of the game, and sadly, that meant Minkah Fitzpatrick was on the bench and could not extend his win streak of playing on offense. Fitzpatrick covered for that unfortunate reality by breaking up the final Cleveland Brown’s pass of the game, something he has done a number of times in close wins.

Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden joined Fitzpatrick in the 100% club. Haden had a great game in run support, and Edmunds again took on tough assignments and performed well in them. Edmunds has become the Steelers No. 1 problem solver, a lot of their adjustments in game involve Edmunds taking on more work. We’re seeing his value show up in snap counts as the Steelers have stopped rotating him off the field. His improved deep zone defense is a big part of that. Edmunds clearly is a big part of the defense, denying big plays by the opposition.

Alex Highsmith has played 119 of 124 snaps the last two games. I’m not going to do the work to find out, but I suspect that is a record for consecutive games as a Steeler edge defender. Highsmith is really coming into his own, and if the Steelers do trade Melvin Ingram, a large part of that equation will be Highsmith’s improved play.

T.J. Watt has multiple sacks in every game he’s played over 50 snaps this season, and he was a huge part of the Steelers beating the Browns. The backups behind Watt and Highsmith played sparingly, but both newcomer Taco Charlton and Derreck Tuszka played well against the Browns in their few snaps. Their play will be even more important going forward if Ingram leaves the team.

Last, but certainly not least, the defensive line.

Cameron Heyward was his usual dominant self, and it’s hard not to take for granted how great Heyward is week in and week out. I’m comfortable putting him ahead of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, everyone that has played on the Steelers defensive line since Joe Greene retired in 1981. Behind Heyward, Chris Wormley played a much better game this week than he did in Week 6, although that isn’t a high bar at all. Wormley’s play was solid again, and that is key because he’s the most versatile defensive lineman behind Heyward.

Isaiah Buggs played substantial minutes as the nose tackle, and provided value as a scrappy brawler in the middle. He’s a player that wins with sheer spirit and fight, his talent and technique might not be great, but he fights for every blade of grass, and that earned him the No. 3 spot in defensive line snaps against the Browns’ offensive line. Henry Mondeaux played well in his snaps, but the lineman who stood out the most to me was Isaiahh Loudermilk, and he only played 15 snaps. He is the Steelers’ second best run defender on the line, Heyward is No. 1 at everything, and the Browns really struggled to move him off his marks. He offers almost nothing as a pass rusher, but it wasn’t that long ago he was an incredibly raw young man coming out of college with length and size and that’s about it. His growth this season has been impressive.

You can say that same thing about a lot of the young Steelers, both rookies and second year players. That growth was key to this win, and key to the Steelers success the rest of this season and going forward.