No one likes a tie. A loss stinks, but a loss either comes in clearly or close, and you can process that and move on. A tie requires 10 minutes of pure frustration tacked onto the end of a full game your team couldn’t win.
If you wonder why the reaction after a tie seems worse than the reaction after a loss, that’s the reason. We all sat there and watched another period of incredibly frustrating football after watching a game that already disappointed. A loss at the end of overtime would have been deserved, you play badly, you lose. But a tie?
The Steelers went from 4 straight wins to tying a team that was 0-8. That stunk. But it also made sense when you look at who was playing. If you have been following these snap count articles this season, you probably already know what I’m going to talk about here.
We’ve been talking about the consistency with the offensive line and quarterback playing every snap each game. That didn’t happen this week. Ben Roethlisberger was ruled out of the game, and then both Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner were injured and replaced by J.C. Hassenauer and Joe Haeg, a backup center and tackle respectively.
Hassenauer played a good game, he is clearly a much better player than he was last season, and we can see now why the Steelers kept him last year. But unfortunately, the last two seasons the Steelers are 15-3 when J.C. Hassenauer plays less than 15 snaps, and 1-4-1 when he plays more than that. Consistency on the offensive line is key.
Again, Hassenauer played a good game. But he’s not Kevin Dotson. Hassenauer’s second play in the game replacing Dotson was the TD run by Najee Harris that came back for a holding call. At that point Harris had ran 12 times for 60 yards (5.0 ypc). He would run 14 times for 45 yards afterwards (3.2 YPC). Even a good day from a backup isn’t going to get you the results you got with your best run blocking lineman.
Ray-Ray McCloud played 70% of offensive snaps, and James Washington played 87%, both set career records in snaps played in this game. When your No. 4 and No. 5 receiver both set career highs in snaps played and they years removed from being rookies, that’s not a good sign either. The Steelers are now 1-8-1 when James Washington plays 80% of offensive snaps.
It’s almost like the Steelers managing a tie is a pleasant surprise with these kind of numbers stacked against them.
To look on the bright side, the Steelers are still finding ways to get Najee Harris some snaps off, with 1 run for 4 yards their only stats, and Pat Freiermuth is clearly cemented as the No. 1 tight end while Eric Ebron and Zach Gentry split the rest of the tight end snaps pretty evenly. That’s really where that position should be at this point.
Similar to how the offensive snaps were more about the players not playing than the ones playing, the defensive snap counts paint a similar picture. Let’s start with the defensive backs, where Joe Haden only played 9 snaps before leaving the game with injury. Since 2018, when Haden has missed most, or all, of a game, the Steelers are now 0-4-1.
James Pierre helped mitigate the loss of Haden by playing one of the best games of his young career, but it is hard to truly know the value of veteran leadership on the field in tight games.
Minkah Fitzpatrick missed one snap on defense, only the fifth time he has not played 100% of snaps in his 40 games with Pittsburgh. Fitzpatrick has played more snaps on offense than he has missed on defense. When Minkah misses at least one snap on defense, the Steelers are 2-2-1, when he plays 100% of defensive snaps, the Steelers are 23-11, when he plays 100% of defensive snaps and plays at least one snap on offense, the Steelers are 8-0.
(You had to know that was coming. #letminkahcook)
T.J. Watt’s injury was huge. He’s a force the other team has to account for on every play, and losing him has been a death sentence this season. The Steelers are 0-2-1 when T.J. Watt misses a significant part of the game with injury. When he is healthy they are 5-1.
Part of the fallout from the Watt injury is the burden that falls on other players. In the broadcast, while T.J. Watt was down on the field, Cameron Heyward walked up to Minkah Fitzpatrick and started talking to him. Players around were shaking their heads, they knew Watt was coming out, and the defense needed it’s leaders to step up.
In this game, Cameron Heyward played 67 snaps, 94% of defensive snaps. While most of these stats have been about the better players not being on the field, this one is about the Steelers having to rely on their best player too much. 94% of snaps is the highest percentage Heyward has played since he was 26 years old in 2015, the first year with Keith Butler as the defensive coordinator. Only three times, all in 2015, has Cameron Heyward played more snaps and a higher percentage of snaps in his career.
Heyward played a fantastic game again, and showed his immeasurable leadership in keeping this defense from falling completely apart missing multiple key pieces on top of their already depleted roster.
Really, look at that snap count list, look at the players who played 50% or more of this game and tell me that is a good defense. It’s Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and that’s really it. That defense did enough for the Steelers to win this game if they could have managed 17 points. That’s impressive.
Sadly, while the defense continues to find ways to keep the opponent’s scoring total down, the Steelers offense wasn’t good enough to capitalize on it this time.