The Steelers lost to the New York Jets at home in Week 4. The offense scored the most points it has all season, and a banged-up defense collapsed in the fourth quarter to fall to 1-3. Facing a 10-point deficit and a stagnant offense that needed serious help just to get in field goal range, Mike Tomlin made the big change, playing Kenny Pickett the second half of the game. But that wasn’t the only change they made.
Let’s take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers snap counts from their Week 4 game against the New York Jets.
The offensive line played the entire game and continued their upward trend with another game of solid play. They struggled with Quinnen Williams, but every other team has struggled with him as well, so I’m not going to knock them too hard for that. They aren’t a great offensive line, but they aren’t a problem anymore.
Najee Harris continues to get around 3/4ths of the snaps at running back, but he also continues to not look like the Najee Harris the Steelers had in 2021. With Najee not able to be the engine pulling the offense, the Steelers have to set up the run with the pass this season, and that put the focus on the passing game.
After 3 straight weeks of averaging 2.7 or higher wide receivers per snap, the Steelers dropped that number to 2.5 per snap in Week 4. Instead, the Steelers played their tight ends more, with 1.5 tight ends/fullbacks per snap. That means the Steelers went from using two tight ends about 1 in 4 plays, to roughly half of the plays.
Gunner Olszewski continues to get snaps on offense at wide receiver, in spite of the fact he’s never been targeted on a pass and has touched the ball twice, this week a run for zero yards. The Steelers could really use a better No. 4 wide receiver, as Olszewski brings even less in that role than Ray-Ray McCloud did in 2021. With Calvin Austin III and Anthony Miller on injured reserve (IR), the Steelers could still look to Steven Sims who has returned kicks and punts in the past and offers more as a fourth receiver than Olszewski.
George Pickens played the lowest percentage of snaps that he has so far in his young career with the increased usage of tight ends, but set career highs in targets (8), receptions (6), and recorded his first 100-yard game after a 4/4 71-yard second half with Kenny Pickett. On a day when the Steelers other two wide receivers went 2/6 for 11 yards, it was good to see.
Pickens wasn’t the only record setter though. Pat Freiermuth had his most productive game of his career with 85 yards, beating his 75-yard previous mark set in Week 1 against the Bengals.
Chase Claypool recorded the first 0 receiving yardage game of his career, in his second game with zero catches (the previous time he received a pitch that gave him 12 receiving yards on zero receptions). His zero yards is not the lowest of his career though, as he had one catch for -2 yards in Week 14 of 2021.
On defense the Steelers show the toll of injuries with Akhello Witherspoon inactive for the game pushing Levi Wallace into a starting role. That meant more snaps for Arthur Maulet at the nickel back position. The Steelers also saw Terrell Edmunds go out with injury in the first half, playing only 39% of the snaps in this game. He was replaced by Tre Norwood who played a solid game, but who doesn’t bring the same level of athleticism, or versatility, to the defense.
The Steelers also played their outside linebackers less than they did the week before, as the Steelers are playing a lot more 4-3 looks as the outside linebackers fail to deliver much across from Alex Highsmith. The inside linebackers averaged 2.2 players per snap, taking up a decent bit of the drop off to 1.6 outside linebackers per snap. The rest of those snaps went to defensive linemen as the Steelers tweaked their usual 3-4 set to be three defensive lineman with one outside linebacker lined up in a 4 man front with the three inside linebackers behind them a decent amount this game.
Along with that increase, DeMarvin Leal moved ahead of Chris Wormley in snaps played, and he was third in snaps on the defensive line in this game, playing only 10 fewer snaps than starting outside linebacker Malik Reed.
The Steelers struggles in finding good play from the spot left vacant by T.J. Watt’s injury continue, and how they attempt to cover for his absence will be a major story to keep track of next week as well.
The loss of T.J. Watt has had a profound impact on this defense. It was built to defend the pass primarily by getting pressure on the quarterback, something it doesn’t do well enough now. It was designed to offset some weakness in the run game by focusing on splash plays that T.J. Watt racked up. With less pressure the Steelers have to blitz more, and with the run defense becoming a problem they can’t ignore the linebackers are being more aggressive and opening up play-action passing lanes.
The incredible impact T.J. Watt has on the field when he’s healthy makes the entire defense better, and the offense too. Without him, the Steelers just aren’t the same team, and nothing shows that more than all the ways the Steelers defense is attempting to find a way to stay afloat in his absence.