My weekly NFL tradition of overthinking how the Steelers utilize their players continues as we search for answers as to how the team got waylaid by the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Below you’ll find Sunday’s snap counts along with some analysis on why, who, what, where, and how the game shook out the way it did.
A number of surprises surfaced on Sunday, including major upticks in playing time for Jaylen Samuels, who many guessed would see more playing time in 2019 following flashes his rookie season.
What some may not have guessed is that James Conner would play less than half of the game; a combination of Samuels playing more and the game getting out of hand to where the Steelers went pass-heavy on offense for the entire second half.
Johnny Holton was called up to the active 53-man roster Saturday to play a total of eight snaps on offense – he was also a key player on special teams, primarily used as a gunner on punt coverage.
You wouldn’t know it, but Vance McDonald was in for 71% of the game while Xavier Grimble saw the field twice. Backup swing tackle Zach Banner and Roosevelt Nix didn’t play on offense at all. (Banner would not play in the game whatsoever, including on special teams.)
How this might change
Going forward I expect about the same snap counts for McDonald, maybe even Samuels, but I doubt we see Conner leave the field much as I hope to see Nix/Banner out there a handful of times while the Steelers establish a running game. Whenever they get away from rushing the football, they tend to shoot themselves in the foot, as evident by all of the wide receivers who played but the overall lack of offensive production in going pass happy with their play calling.
Of course, some of this was dictated by falling behind to the Patriots in the second quarter, but it’s still alarming to me that the team would abandon their rushing attack with a Pro Bowl running back and three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, as well as a former Pro Bowl fullback all on the roster.
As per the usual the Steelers defensive backs hardly left the field. Artie Burns saw a single snap when Joe Haden was checked on for a play before returning to the game. Otherwise, it was full participation as usual, including first-time starter Kameron Kelly.
Upfront, the defensive linemen rotated, as did the Steelers linebackers. Long drives with very little time of possession by the Steelers offense fatigued the front seven, which saw reserves such as Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo receive substantial playing time.
Due to an emphasis on subpackage football, including using Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton in DB-centric schemes, Javon Hargrave was underused for only 1/3 of the game… somehow, that lent time to Dan McCullers who nearly saw a career-high in snaps playing defense, when Hargrave was otherwise rotated in as a defensive end, rather than a tackle.
Vince Williams, a key blitzer, was mostly sent out on first down plays as Mark Barron and, despite not being named a starter, Devin Bush. Bush saw the most time of the inside linebackers and in fact started the game in place of Williams.
How this might change
Depending on Joe Haden's injury, we may see any combination of Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton or Justin Layne in this week's game plan. This also depends on where Sean Davis is with his injury recovery as well, since Kam Kelly was initially thought to have a larger role as a dimebacker: those assignments were passed off mostly to Sutton on Sunday.
I also don't anticipate seeing as high of a snap count from Alualu in the future. When better rested, Heyward and Tuitt will play in the 80% range.
Chickillo's playing time was also increased due to T.J. Watt leaving the game in the second half and being ruled out for a return.