That wasn’t the game any Steeler fan wanted to see. Especially early in the game. Thursday Night Football is usually an ugly affair full of lousy execution and boneheaded mistakes, and this Week 14 game lived up to that standard.
There’s a lot more than the result to talk about following this game, so let’s look at the snap counts and see who we should be talking about.
Guard John Leglue, in his second NFL game, missed two snaps, but outside of that the offensive line stayed intact. The line started out playing well, and they looked good finishing the game, but they really struggled with Minnesota's blitzing and finding the right players to block in the middle of the game. Once the Vikings had their big lead, they stopped blitzing and the line looked better and had time to figure out how to block those attacks.
Along with the line, Ben Roethlisberger struggled at times to recognize the blitz and took a few hits where he needed to just get rid of the ball. That specific mental error is one we haven’t seen very often at all from the Steelers quarterback. Overall though, the line and the quarterback stayed healthy and the Steelers near comeback was driven by their play.
Speaking of mental lapses, receiver Chase Claypool had some of the biggest in the game, killing momentum early for the Steelers on a night of the week where momentum is a precious commodity for the road team. His “benching” led to him falling to 3rd in snaps for receivers behind Ray-Ray McCloud and left him with only 14 more snaps than James Washington. Despite his snaps and somewhat unhinged behavior (or maybe because of it?) Claypool also made some of the best plays of the game on offense for the Steelers and led the team in receiving.
I can live with the Chase Claypool who plays angry and makes great catches. The cocky and stupid Chase Claypool we saw early in the game and on that first down pose with the game ticking away I can live without. I’ll take offensive pass interference or a bit of fighting if a guy is clearly emotionally invested in winning. It’s much worse watching a player destroy a drive with pettiness. This offense needs Claypool’s playmaking, but right now he’s not doing a great job keeping on the productive side of the productive/crazy spectrum.
Another good game for Najee Harris with one of his better stat lines of his young career with 104 total yards and 2 TDs on 23 touches. He received 3 snaps off for Benny Snell who ran one time for -2 yards, but Harris was also a part of the middle of the game struggles with picking up blitzes.
Pat Freiermuth continues to cement his position as the Steelers No. 1 TE and a real weapon, despite what feels like his first incomplete ball in the end zone on the final pass of the game.
After a game where the Steelers played almost their entire active roster, in this game the Steelers only had 13 offensive players play more than 5 snaps, and only 17 play even one offensive snap.
Cameron Heyward played most of the snaps in this game, recording his second highest total snaps of the season. The most reliable Steeler had a rough start to the game, when the Vikings surprisingly ran at him a lot, and even more surprising, they had a lot of success on those runs. Heyward bounced back and was his usual dominant self for two-thirds of the game, and I think it is a testament to the power of Thursday Night Football that he struggled early.
Montravious Adams played another solid game, and once Heyward found his groove, the Steelers run defense stopped getting gashed up the middle. There was plenty of outside run success, just much less to the interior. You have to take what positives you can at this point people.
Devin Bush and Joe Schobert played the same number of snaps, Joe Schobert usually plays the higher number. In this game the Steelers used Marcus Allen in dime early, went back to Schobert and played Bush in dime. They also gave Buddy Johnson his first snaps of the season as the Steelers rotated both Bush and Schobert out a bit more this game.
Joe Schobert being targeted when he’s in man on backs or tight ends is a trend that continues, and it seems the Steelers are reacting to it. I would say this game was the first time since Bush’s groin injury that he outplayed Joe Schobert, with two games of improving play behind him, there may be hope that if the players in front of Bush can do their jobs, the Steelers defense might stabilize.
Of course, that’s not going to happen if T.J. Watt can’t stay healthy. Watt played only 36% of snaps and recorded only 1 QB hit. Of course, with Watt not healthy for the full game, the Steelers lost. A 6-0 to 0-6-1 split on the season based solely on T.J. Watt’s level of health is incredible, and it is both evidence of Watt’s incredible talent and value, and the fragility of the defense around him that he swings the entire team from losing to winning with his ability.
With Alex Highsmith also leaving the game the outside linebackers were led by Derrek Tuszka in snaps, his 2 tackle assists are not the kind of stat line the Steelers need from their No. 1 edge defender, but that’s where the Steelers are right now.
In the secondary Akhello Witherspoon played the game of his career with a career high 2 interceptions and tying his high with 3 passes defended. The work he did facing star receiver Justin Jefferson was fantastic. Jefferson’s 5.3 yards per target was the lowest of any game when he’s been targeted at least 9 times. The Steelers secondary coaches have been doing a great job these last few seasons, and if Witherspoon can keep playing at this level, people are going to start talking about it more.
I was surprised to see Justin Layne keep his dime-back job for another week, but I think it speaks to how much man coverage the Steelers are playing right now. Layne was always a better man cover corner, while Pierre is much better than Layne in zone. As the Steelers adapt their defense to their opponents and their constantly changing personnel, the strengths and weaknesses of their players will change in value.