Last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting defensive ends logged all 70 snaps for the team in a win against the Raiders. It was the first time in the careers of either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt to do so, and the first time in recent memory that I can recall seeing a defensive lineman in this defense stay on the field for every snap.
That is part an accolade for the quality of work that the two high draft picks have put in this season, but also an indictment about the quality of depth that they have available behind them. The rest of the defensive linemen behind them played all of 16 snaps total, including base 3-4 looks and the goal line package that includes four down linemen.
Even in spite of that, the Steelers struggled significantly to produce much of any pressure on the quarterback, for the first time this season registering zero sacks in a game. They entered the week tied for fifth in the league in sacks after several years of finishing in or near the bottom third in that category.
Given their struggles to make the quarterback work much with their two best pass rushers along the front line against a quality Raiders line, one would think that they would fare no better relying upon depth against a Browns line that is just as good when healthy, perhaps even better.
The fact that arguably their best, and certainly most consistent, pass rushing outside linebacker, James Harrison, is out for the game certainly doesn’t make it any easier for the Steelers to get after the quarterback, making it more important to have their best rushers on the field as much as possible.
But even before last week, the Steelers were already pushing their stud defensive ends at an unsustainable pace. To start the season, Tuitt, in his second year, was consistently logging in excess of 90 percent of the snaps on a regular basis up until his injury. Then he played every snap in his first game back.
Tuitt, I might remind, was a rotational player for three quarters of his rookie season before he entered the starting lineup, and came out of college early, so it should not be expected for him to be able to sustain such a pace.
Prior to Tuitt’s injury, Heyward was able to get a bit more rest than the young pup, but still regularly saw at least 80 to 85 percent of the snaps. That number has been consistently above 90 percent the past three weeks, playing all but seven snaps in that span.
The coaching staff simply has to find a way to rest them during the games, especially games in which they play such an extensive amount of snaps, as they did last week.
While it’s a tough decision to make in close games—and, admittedly, the defense has lapsed a time or two when they were not on the field—it is a necessity for their long-term productivity over the course of the season, and may have to be a priority in the offseason.