The 2022 Steelers season is over, so it is time for our final snap count article. Often we look at statistics and highlights and judge the importance of players based on what we see there, but one of the best ways to see the value a player had to a team is simply how much that player was on the field. Today we’re going to look at all three phases of the game and who the Steelers entrusted with play time the most.
The thing that stands out the most is something I mentioned every week in the snap count articles, and that is the percentage of snaps played by the Steelers offensive line. Three of the Steelers lineman played every snap, and Chukwuma Okorafor only missed one snap due to NFL rules requiring him to take one snap off before returning. Mason Cole is the only lineman to miss any real snaps, and even he only missed 46 snaps. The 47 missed snaps from the starting offensive line is the lowest amount of any Steeler team since snap counts started being tracked.
While that kind of injury luck is so rare that it is highly improbable we see another season like it, it should also be mentioned here that the Steelers went from one of the older and more frequently injured lines to one of the youngest and least injured lines. The improvements of that young line is one of the main stories of the 2022 season, and with all five under contract for 2023, the Steelers offensive line should be in good shape.
Sixth in snaps comes Diontae Johnson. Johnson is the only non-lineman to play 80%+ of offensive snaps this season. He played 160 more snaps than George Pickens. It stood out during the season that in a lot of run-heavy formations the Steelers took George Pickens off the field. That may seem strange with Pickens being a physical blocking receiver, but I think it had more to do with his readiness and preparation than blocking ability. Not saying that as a criticism, rookies are often put into a tight focus in their training and the Steelers would rightly be far more invested in Pickens learning passing plays and working on things like running routes and catching passes than mastering the intricacies of the Steelers run game.
Third in wide receiver snaps is Chase Claypool, despite only being on the team for 8 of the 17 games. Steven Sims, Gunner Olszewski, and Miles Boykin all played significantly fewer snaps than Claypool despite being on the team the whole season. The Steelers could go into the 2023 season planning to run more tight ends, fullbacks, wingbacks and double running back sets, but if the Steelers intend to use more three wide receiver sets in 2023, they will likely look to add a player to fill that role. While Sims did a good job since the trade of Claypool, you can see by the snap counts they didn’t give him anywhere close to the same kind of playtime they gave Claypool.
In 2021 Najee Harris played 84% of snaps, this season that dropped to 66%. This is a topic Steeler fans talked about and Mike Tomlin even said they needed to reduce Harris’ usage. It’s also something I brought up with the hiring of Pat Meyer to be the offensive line coach. Multiple times Meyer has joined a team with a Pro-Bowl running back, cut that players work load in snaps and carries while still getting a lot of yards and touchdowns from that player.
While Harris played 75% of the snaps he did in 2021, he gained 86.2% of the rushing yards he gained in 2021 and scored the same number of rushing touchdowns in both seasons. This despite Harris’ first half of the season being underwhelming. When you look at Harris’ second half of the season it really stands out.
In the last nine games of the 2022 season Harris played 70% of snaps only twice, but averaged 88 yards from scrimmage a game, and scored 7 touchdowns. When you cut a players snaps and increase their effectiveness that’s a great combo. Getting more out of Najee while putting less wear on his body is a huge win.
Jaylen Warren took the lion’s share of the snaps Harris didn’t play and he averaged 44 yards per game since the bye week. If that pace lasted an entire season Warren would account for roughly 750 yards of offense. Hopefully the Steelers can keep the momentum from the run game into 2023.
The Steelers averaged 1.3 tight ends per snap in 2022, with an increase in the second half following the Chase Claypool trade. The Steelers run game and passing game both improved in efficiency with the tight end usage. Pat Freiermuth is third on the Steelers in yards per target, Connor Heyward is second and blocking tight end Zach Gentry is 7th, just behind team leader in targets Diontae Johnson.
Before moving on to the defense, I need to mention Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Sutton who played the role of safety in victory formations. Despite that role going to other players for most of 2022, the Steelers are 12-0 when Minkah Fitzpatrick plays a snap on offense. #LetMinkahCook
The most surprising snap count of the season is Alex Highsmith leading the Steelers defense in snaps. It took both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds missing two games for it to happen, but to have an outside linebacker play 88.4% of snaps is incredible. For reference, T.J. Watt played 83% of snaps of the games he was active for, and has never played more than 86% of snaps in a season. Cameron Heyward ended the season 5th in snaps at 75.3%, and that brings me to a key takeaway for this season.
I don’t think people realize how many injuries the Steelers 2022 defense suffered. This defense only had 5 players play 2⁄3 of the defensive snaps. That’s the lowest number of Steelers to play 2⁄3 of defensive snaps since snap counts started being tracked in 2012. Twenty-four players started a game for the 2022 Steelers defense, with 17 of those players starting at least 3 games, and only six players started 15 games or more, with just Cameron Heyward and Alex Highsmith starting every game this season. If you just look at defensive backs the Steelers had Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Cameron Sutton all start 15 games, Beyond those three, Seven players started between 1 and 9 games.
The turmoil in the secondary was mostly in the first half of the season. Akhello Witherspoon started four games, James Pierre started two, Tre Norwood started three all in the first half of the season. In the second half of the season Damontae Kazee and Levi Wallace helped bring consistency to the defensive back groupings.
The Steelers defensive line behind Cameron Heyward wasn’t very deep. Larry Ogunjobi was great, and the Steelers kept his snaps in the 30’s or 40’s after Week 5. it paid off with Ogunjobi being a disruptive presence late in the season when he played some of his best football of the season. The defense after the bye week and especially in the last 4 weeks benefitted a lot from keeping the total snaps down so that Ogunjobi and Heyward didn’t have to play higher snaps and yet the Steelers cut the number of snaps both Ogunjobi and Heyward were off the field in half. Those reduced snaps helped cover for the loss of Chris Wormley and limit how much the Steelers had to rely on Tyson Alualu, and young lineman like DeMarvin Leal and Isaiahh Loudermilk.
Since all but a few players play at least one snap on Special Teams each season, I cut this list to players who played at least 15% or more of Special Teams snaps, as well as a few players who played less, but their special teams snaps were a significant portion of their total snaps.
The big four Special Teams players in 2022 were Derek Watt, Miles Killebrew, Connor Heyward and Benny Snell Jr. Those players played on all four of the main special teams groups. As you move down the list you get away from the primarily special teams guys and into backups that play one or two roles on special teams. The standouts for me are Miles Boykin, the best gunner I’ve seen the Steelers have on kick or punt coverage, James Pierre, who was the Steelers best gunner until Boykin joined the team and Robert Spillane, whose increased usage on defense has dropped him from a top tier special teams player to just playing 30% of special teams snaps. The most surprising placement on this list to me is Cameron Heyward, who played 27.4% of special teams snaps. At his age, importance and with the Steelers actively working to keep his snap counts on defense down it is strange to see him getting roughly 7 snaps a game on special teams.
A lot of that is on field goal and extra point plays, but it just seems weird to me that the Steelers would play Heyward on those plays and not just let him play a few more on defense each game. You’d think that would be a better use of Heyward’s talent.
Special teams play doesn’t matter as much as offense and defense, mostly due to the much lower total plays involved, but it is important for roster building, and as the Steelers head towards building the 2023 roster, special teams will factor into who leaves and who stays.
Speaking of that...
Here is every Steeler player that played at least one snap in 2023 who is not currently under contract with the Steelers. This is a good list to start from when looking at the roster building that needs to happen this offseason.
Notice that the very first offensive player to show up on this list is Zach Gentry then notice that outside of Gentry and Claypool, there aren’t many impactful names on this list for the offense. Steven Sims would be the only other real factor and he accounted for a total of 174 yards both rushing and receiving. While Sims was a nice addition to the jet sweep runs, his 104 yards on 23 targets (4.5 ypt) is nothing impressive and I can’t imagine him being a priority re-signing.
The Steelers offense is returning largely intact, they are losing backup lineman and depth players at receiver and tight end. The defense on the other hand, has a lot of snaps heading into free agency. Cameron Sutton and Terrell Edmunds are the big names on this list, but like every other name here, they aren’t the most important players. No one is building a defense around Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Sutton or even Larry Ogunjobi. No team is signing one of those names and declaring they just solved or massively upgraded their defense. If the Steelers wanted to, they could rebuild the defense around their key players this season. Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Minkah Fitzpatrick are all under contract. The Steelers could try to bring back the same guys that played with them or they could look to change the way their defense is built.
Robert Spillane is an interesting name, and his value will be something to watch in free agency, He should at least get top tier special teams player money, but it will be interesting to see if any team is willing to pay him to be a starting linebacker.
No matter which approach the Steelers take, there will be a lot of signings on defense this free agency. The Steelers always enter the draft with each starting position filled with someone you could survive having as your starter. Not saying a good starter, but someone the Steelers feel can do the job if needed. That’s a lot of spots on the defense this year.