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Defensive snap counts show Steelers’ faith in their high draft picks

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Despite the capabilities of their talented backups on defense, the Steelers have largely been sticking with players selected early in the past four NFL Drafts.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of bench strength, the Pittsburgh Steelers compare favorably with other contending teams in the NFL. Particularly regarding periodic substitutions necessary on the defensive line, the Steelers have scarcely missed a beat in terms of their overall performance. But looking at Pittsburgh’s defensive snap-counts as compiled by Football Outsiders during the past four games—and with the exception of substitutions necessary due to injuries—we find a pattern of remarkable stability in terms of personnel.

Defensive line

Two players leading the pack in this department are Cameron Heyward (rebounding like gangbusters from his injury-shortened 2016 season) and Ryan Shazier, the keystone of a young-and-still-improving linebacker corps. By far, Heyward has been the most productive member of the Steelers’ defensive line. In the past four games (Weeks 8, 10, 11 and 12), Heyward has averaged 53 defensive snaps per game (note that the cited snap-counts are strictly defensive snaps and don’t include any special-teams snaps). For Heyward, this equates to a 4-game average of playing on 85 percent of all defensive snaps.

After returning to the field from some nagging injuries earlier in the season, Stephon Tuitt has reclaimed his bookend status opposite Heyward on the line. Having missed the Week-8 game, Tuitt subsequently averaged about 50 snaps per game in Weeks 10-12, playing an average of 83 percent of all defensive snaps in these three games.

Javon Hargrave has played a key role on the defensive line but, as shown below, his playing time has varied from about one-third to more than half of all defensive snaps:

  • Week 8: 39 defensive snaps/55 percent of all snaps
  • Week 10: 28 defensive snaps/47 percent of all snaps
  • Week 11: 23 defensive snaps/35 percent of all snaps
  • Week 12: 20 defensive snaps/36 percent of all snaps

“Invisible” is one word we’d never expect to see associated with the massive nose tackle Daniel McCullers, but in terms of his participation on the field this season, the adjective is quite appropriate. This raises some serious questions about McCullers’ future with the team beyond the current season.

The contributions of Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton have played a significant and positive role in terms of spelling Heyward and mitigating the impact of Tuitt’s previous absence. Nevertheless, their overall playing time has been relatively short. Interestingly, though, Alualu was the player tapped by Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin to fill Tuitt’s big shoes in the Week-8 game at Detroit. Alualu had 53 defensive snaps in that game, equating to 75 percent of all defensive snaps. But in Weeks 10-12, Alualu averaged only 11 snaps per game or approximately 18 percent of all snaps.

It seems evident that Alualu is the preferred backup at defensive end because L.T. Walton’s overall playing time has been significantly less as follows:

  • Week 8: 18 defensive snaps/25 percent of all snaps
  • Week 10: 7 defensive snaps/12 percent of all snaps
  • Week 11: 10 defensive snaps/15 percent of all snaps
  • Week 12: 3 defensive snaps/5 percent of all snaps

Linebackers

We’ve seen plenty of questions about the lack of playing time for James Harrison this season. But when we look at the snap-counts for Pittsburgh’s linebacker corps, it’s apparent that Tomlin and company have firmly committed to a youth movement designed to give high-round draft picks such as Bud Dupree (2015 first-rounder) and T.J. Watt (2017 first-rounder) the lion’s share of work, along with the more experienced 2014 first-rounder, Ryan Shazier.

Shazier, Watt and Dupree have become the solid core of Pittsburgh’s present and future defense, notching the following snap-count averages (per game) in the past four games:

  • Shazier: 61 defensive snaps/98 percent of all defensive snaps
  • Watt: 57 defensive snaps/91 percent of all defensive snaps
  • Dupree: 57 defensive snaps/92 percent of all defensive snaps

Given such a high level of participation by three of the Steelers’ four linebacking amigos, you can see how difficult it might be for a backup-LB to get onto the field. And their trusty compadre Vince Williams has been doing such a bang-up job that his playing time, albeit somewhat less than the others, has also been consistently high. Williams averaged 48 snaps per game in Weeks 8-12 and he was on the field for 76 percent of all defensive snaps during this stretch.

So Harrison isn’t the only backup who’s been largely absent from the field in 2017. His young teammates Anthony Chickillo and Tyler Matakevich, plus the not-so-young Arthur Moats, have scarcely seen playing time either. Chickillo and Moats recently played a combined 23 defensive snaps, mainly in the second half of the Steelers’ Week-11 blowout of Tennessee at Heinz Field. But their per-game snap totals have generally been in the low single-digits—as was the case again in the win over Green Bay—with each of them playing only two snaps.

Onward to greatness

Because of injury issues significantly affecting players like Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, we’ll examine the Steelers’ secondary later in the season when there’s a larger sample size for the starting four (with Haden likely still out). But strictly with reference to the front seven, there’s been a fair amount of criticism from fans and pundits since the season began. Nevertheless, these snap-counts speak of a Pittsburgh coaching staff firmly convinced it’s putting the best players on the field each week and determined to give them sufficient reps in the early stage of their careers. This approach helps expedite a maturation process that cannot always be completed with only one or two years’ experience as a starting player in the NFL.

Given the Steelers’ previous history of sometimes bringing promising young players along too slowly, it seems likely the coaching staff is taking the right approach. After all, they’re the ones whose jobs involve watching endless hours of game film to evaluate the performance of these athletes from week to week and year to year.

So it doesn’t seem too unrealistic to expect this strategy to bear substantial fruit in the near future as the Steelers beat a path towards the playoffs. They’ve done their recruiting homework and drafted the requisite talent. They’ve given their young players the necessary game experience. Now it’s time for the Black-and-gold defense to start racking up more of those splash-plays that Coach Tomlin has been talking about.