The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t a good team this season, but their Week 15 win kept their long odds for a winning record, and even a playoff berth, alive.
The Steelers showed the kind of game they need to have to keep winning and pull off a respectable end to the 2022 season.
The Steelers offensive line again played the entire game, and they were a key component to the Steelers win over the Panthers, as was the play of Mitch Trubisky in a bounce back game from his Week 14 performance.
Najee Harris played 45 snaps and Jaylen Warren played 23, a nice 2:1 ratio that should help keep Harris running strong through the end of the season, especially when you consider he ran 24 times in a game the Steelers ran 45 times. That’s the most rushes the Steelers have had in a game since Week 14 of the 2006 season when the Steelers ran 52 times and Willie Parker set a then Steeler single-game rushing record with 223 yards on 32 carries. The Steelers 3 rushing touchdowns are tied for the most in a game since the week after that game, Week 15 of the 2006 season when the Steelers scored four rushing touchdowns. The Steelers last scored 3 rushing touchdowns in 2020.
Controlling the clock with a varied rushing attack is exactly what the Steelers need to do this season to protect their defense that tends to drop off as the snap counts and number of drives get higher, and to protect their quarterbacks that can be efficient and effective as long as they aren’t asked to carry the offense.
That run focus shows up in the rest of the snap counts as well, where the Steelers played Trent Scott as an extra lineman 10 times, Derek Watt 9 times, and played Zach Gentry more snaps than Pat Freiermuth. While the Freiermuth snap total and his lack of targets was no doubt in part because of his injury that kept him out of practice most of the week, the number of snaps for extra blockers definitely shows an intentional focus for the Steelers in the run game.
The split between an extra blocker versus a 3rd wide receiver is almost 50/50, with extra blockers holding a two-snap advantage.
With the reduced usage of extra receivers, the Steelers wide receivers had one of their best games all season, with 164 yards on 18 targets, a 9.1 yards per target mark that is fantastic. Leading the way was Diontae Johnson who was able to get the ball on a lot of routes that usually see more defenders watching for them, but this week the run game was pulling defenders and opening up space for Johnson to operate.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Sutton and Robert Spillane all played 100% of the defensive snaps. Fitzpatrick and Sutton lead the defense in complete games with 10 and 9 respectively, while Spillane has two of the three non-defensive back complete games for the Steelers this season, Devin Bush has the other.
Alex Highsmith missed a complete game by only one snap. He’s been a workhorse for the Steelers this season, his lowest percentage of snaps is 80%, and he’s played 90% or more of the snaps four times this season. Highsmith hasn’t missed a game this year and currently leads all Steelers in defensive snaps played, playing 87% of all defensive snaps this year.
Highsmith was a standout against Carolina with his pass rush and run defense. Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi played great games for the Steelers on the defensive line, and when you look at their snap counts, it isn’t hard to see why. Heyward’s 39 snaps is the 8th lowest snap total of his 145 starts, and he played 85% of the game.
And really, for me, that’s the real takeaway from this game. If you play 46 snaps on defense, you probably aren’t giving up many points, and it is going to be hard to establish the run.
Consider the Steelers ran the ball 45 times, the Panthers ran 46 plays, period. That’s a recipe for a win no matter who you are, but with a defense that has some serious flaws, the four three-and-outs the defense earned in the first half ended up being half the game for Carolina was huge. And with the offense holding the ball for over 60% of the second half, the Panthers didn’t really have a chance to bounce back. They scored on every second half drive, but each time it was a field goal.
The Steelers are beating teams that, like them, aren’t very good. The way they are doing it is promising though, and if they can continue it through the end of the season, it will be something to build on for next year.