The Steelers ended up missing the playoffs, but they entered Week 18’s matchup with the Cleveland Browns needing a win to keep their hopes alive. Their game plan to get that win rested heavily on the shoulders of a lot of young players.
As always, we start with the offensive line and quarterback. Another game with the line and quarterback playing the full game, and I bet a good number of Steeler fans are less certain the Steelers need to spend massive resources upgrading the line than they were a few months ago. Consistency is key, and this offensive line improved a lot over the season playing together more than any Steeler offensive line I can remember. The line hasn’t been great at any point, but they are all young and will enter the offseason with a lot of experience playing together. That puts them all in a much better place heading into this offseason compared to last.
George Pickens was the Steelers leading receiver against the Browns, and his touchdown gave him sole possession of first place for receiving touchdowns on the team. Not that four receiving touchdowns is an impressive mark, but it does lead the team. Pickens made several incredible catches and just missed another when he couldn’t get possession in bounds. Yet George Pickens only played 63% of the snaps in the game. The Steelers really dropped the receiver snaps in this game, attacking the Browns with heavier sets almost all game. The Steelers averaged 2.23 wide receivers per snap, the lowest per snap usage of wide receivers by the Steelers in years. I took way too much time looking into it and couldn’t find a game the Steelers used wide receivers less since snap counts started being counted.
With the reduction in receiver usage, tight end snaps went up. 1.55 tight ends per snap isn’t the highest usage of tight ends this season, but it is close. Pat Freiermuth led the way with 46 snaps before leaving the game with an injury. Freiermuth was held without a catch on two targets, the first game of his career he was targeted at least once and failed to record a catch. Only slightly behind Freiermuth in usage is Zach Gentry. Gentry caught a pass for 23 yards on his only target and is the Steelers best in-line blocking tight end. Connor Heyward got an opportunity to play more with Pat Freiermuth out and took advantage of his 25 snaps, running from his H-back spot for a 6-yard gain and catching three passes for 45 yards to rank second in receiving yards for the game.
Rounding out the non-wide receiver snaps the Steelers played Derek Watt 6 snaps, giving him one rushing attempt that he converted for a touchdown. The Steelers also played Trent Scott as a sixth offensive lineman 6 times and played Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren a combined 77 times in 73 snaps, meaning the two-running back sets were used four times in this game. While Matt Canada has been involved in the run game for three seasons now, and the offensive coordinator for two seasons, only recently have the Steelers started using their fullback, depth tight ends and two running backs on the field together much at all, and those are staples of Matt Canada’s offenses when he was a college coordinator.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Sutton and Robert Spillane again played 100% of snaps on defense, and Alex Highsmith again was called on to play close to the whole game. Highsmith played all but 6 snaps of the last four games of the season. He recorded 4.5 sacks in those four games as well. A very strong finish to the season for Highsmith. Cameron Heyward again played over 80% of the game, something he’s done 6 times since the bye week, and didn’t do once before the bye. He’s also played fewer snaps per game since the bye. Reducing defensive snaps from one of the highest rates in the NFL early in the season to the fewest after the bye is a major storyline for the Steelers season turnaround, and why that matters can be seen directly in Cameron Heyward’s snap counts.
Heyward missed a total of 10 snaps in this game and missed only 29 snaps over the last four games of the season. If we bypass the ridiculous 100 defensive snap anomaly from Week 1, when Heyward’s highest snap count of the year wasn’t even 60% of the game, the next four weeks after that Heyward still missed 71 snaps while playing more total snaps than he did in the last four games. When you cut the number of snaps Cameron Heyward isn’t on the field by 59%, and reduce his workload at the same time? That makes a big difference.
Isaiahh Loudermilk finished Week 18 third in defensive line snaps, followed by Tyson Alualu as the Steelers prioritized run defense with the defensive line while the rest of the team snaps show a more pass-defense oriented team. Can’t really say if it would have worked or not since the Browns voluntarily kept the ball out of Nick Chubb’s hands while he was averaging over 6 yards a carry.
The pass defense did work as Deshaun Watson rarely had open receivers and almost constantly had pressure in the pocket. The Steelers mixed and matched the other inside linebackers with Robert Spillane with Myles Jack playing the second most ILB snaps at 34%.
The Steelers three-safety rotation continued to bolster the secondary that leaned heavily on Levi Wallace and James Pierre at cornerback.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the offseason.