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Steelers snap counts show Mike Tomlin made the right moves in Week 15

A number of interesting personnel decisions result in a Steelers win.

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Steelers snapped a soul-crushing one game losing streak with a hard fought, and bizarre, win over the Tennessee Titans. The win puts them at 7-6-1, staying in the hunt for the AFC North division lead and one win from avoiding a losing season. Many people look at that streak cynically, but it is a great tribute to Ben Roethlisberger that the team’s last losing season led to them drafting the quarterback out of Miami of Ohio. If this is Roethlisberger’s last season, keeping that streak alive matters, if just to honor the quarterback that brought two more Super Bowl championships to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were outplayed in most areas, but forced four turnovers to steal a game from a team that was playing for first place in the AFC. Let’s take a look at who played and made plays in the game.


Offense

The entire offensive line and quarterback played the entire game, along with running back Najee Harris. While the offense wasn’t effective in this game, managing less than 200 yards of total offense on 11 drives, the more stable the key offensive positions are, the better the results. The Steelers didn’t win the yardage battle, but they won the turnover battle, and we’ve seen the Steelers take a turnover from the defense and give the ball right back to the opponent. Getting through this game with zero turnovers was enough to pull out a win, so there’s that.

Diontae Johnson missed only one play, playing 48 snaps, but his 5 targets tied with James Washington, who only played 17 snaps. The targets and yardage were spread around pretty evenly. Johnson, Washington and Pat Freiermuth lead the team with only a 2-yard gap between them. Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud split snaps, but combined for only one 12-yard reception on a pitch from McCloud to Claypool that counts as receiving yards because the Jet Sweep McCloud ran involved a forward pitch. Outside of that play, the Steelers No. 2 and No. 3 receivers in snaps went 0-4 for the game.

Pat Freiermuth left the game after a big hit. He was leading the offense when he left, hopefully he is in good health and comes back healthy soon. Zach Gentry filled in for him and was solid, but Pat Freiermuth is special.

With all the moving parts on offense, we all know the one that matters the most. Mike Tomlin put Minkah Fitzpatrick out there on offense and the Steelers are now 10-0 when that happens.


Defense

While there were only a few notable personnel decisions on offense, the Steelers win in Week 15 was on the defense, allowing the Titans roughly half the points per possession they normally score while forcing 4 turnovers, each one leading directly to a Chris Boswell field goal. Those four scores after turnovers came with a total of 58 yards gained, less than 15 yards a drive. Crazy how little the offense did in this win.

Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds again played 100% of snaps, and the Titans didn’t record a single reception that gained 20+ yards, meaning the Steelers now have only eleven 20+ yard pass plays given up in their last six games. With Joe Haden missing most of those, and several cornerbacks getting demoted, that stat is a real testament to the work the safeties have done. They led the Steelers in tackles in this game, both preventing long pass plays and, sadly, leading the way in run defense as well. When your safeties record 19 solo tackles in 80 snaps, that’s usually a very bad sign, but Edmunds and Fitzpatrick haven’t just stopped the bleeding, they kept this game winnable.

Speaking of cornerbacks, the Steelers limited Joe Haden to roughly one-third of the game, and that move paid off with Haden delivering several big plays, including a diving fumble recovery and an enormous 4th down stop on a solo tackle that was probably the best tackle the team has put on film all season. Akhello Witherspoon trailed only Cameron Sutton in snaps for cornerbacks, but only played 70% of the snaps as the Steelers seemed to swap that position depending on the situation on any given down. Tre Norwood only played 8 snaps. He and James Pierre were recording significant snaps not long ago, and Justin Layne was playing dime the last few games, and now Tre Norwood’s 8 snaps are all the action they received on defense.

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers move forward, but it looks like we may see Witherspoon in situational usage and as the dime back if Haden returns to getting the lion’s share of snaps.

Robert Spillane returned this week and played the most snaps he’s seen since Week 2. That led to Devin Bush playing his lowest percentage of snaps since Week 5, and Joe Schobert’s lowest total of the season. It’s clear Tomlin is investing in rotating his players more across the front seven.

T.J. Watt recorded 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery, but was even better than his stat line, and the Steelers are a ridiculous 7-2 when T.J. Watt plays more than half the snaps in a game, 0-4-1 when he doesn’t. That 77.8% win percentage with Watt playing significant snaps would rank second only to the Green Bay Packers. From second best record in the NFL to a team that can’t buy a win, that’s NFL MVP level impact.

While Watt dominated, his backups Derrek Tuszka and Taco Charlton both made plays, with Tuszka recording a strip sack and Taco Charlton tipping the pass that Joe Schobert intercepted.

On the defensive line, Carlos Davis returned and played 15 snaps, but the defense still gave up a ton of rushing yards. When the Steelers are reduced to hoping the combination of Carlos Davis and Montravius Adams can provide stouter run defense, that’s not a good sign.

But what is good is a win, whether that win was improbable and bizarre or not, it counts. Let’s hope the Steelers find a way to win a few more games they shouldn’t, because every remaining team on their schedule is ahead of them in the standings, and the final two are division games. Honestly, the struggles and personnel issues the Steelers have had make it impressive that they have 7 wins.