I’m not one that gets fixated on certain issues and topics. There are easy, hot button ones out there. I want to run an experiment where I just type “Antwon Blake” in the title, leave the article empty, and see how many comments it gets. I’m guessing over 100.
But there is one area I’ve harped on. But it’s a critical one and one that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. The issue with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ lack of defensive line depth and the stress its placed on Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
Thankfully, the team’s blowouts of the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals over the last two weeks have finally, mercifully, given Heyward and Tuitt some time off.
In that span, Heyward has played just 86 of 116 snaps, or 74.1%. Tuitt is in a similar position with 89 snaps, 76.7%. Just to keep the sample size similar, compare that to the previous two weeks, including a convincing win over the Cleveland Browns. Heyward played 123 of 130 snaps, 94.6%, and Tuitt 125, 96.2%. Up until the last two weeks, Heyward had played on 90% of the Steelers’ snaps while Tuitt is at a similar mark.
It’s why I practically pleaded with the team to make a deadline deal for a rotational defensive end. Why I’m frustrated with a team that has built up one of the best 3-4 duos in the league but left the depth treacherously thin, forcing them to keep Heyward and Tuitt on the field for the sake of having by far the best talent on the field.
All that was left behind them was Steve McLendon – the starting nose tackle – Cam Thomas – kept on this roster out of necessity and nothing else – and Daniel McCullers – who is too limited as a pass rusher and has been practically left without a role this season. It’s a self-made problem. The only new blood on this team is 6th rounder L.T. Walton, a raw rookie who has been inactive the majority of the season.
But to the point. The Steelers have gotten lucky, and for once at the position, wise enough, to have the luxury of limiting their snap counts. A much needed break down the stretch, coupled with the late bye week. At the rate the Steelers are trending, and as their aspirations always are, we’re not talking about playing in a 16 game season. We’re looking at playoffs, making it a 17, 18, hopefully 20 game season. That is significant wear and tear, for anyone of course, but especially for trench guys playing such a high volume.
Notably for a second-year player, first-year starter like Tuitt. There is a perception to say he’s “slowed down” since his injury, and that’s really low-hanging fruit I won’t step to – his play has still been solid.
As the Steelers hit this stretch run, the final three weeks of the regular season and hopeful playoff run, Heyward and Tuitt are now on (relatively) fresh legs. Going into the offseason, and the 2016 NFL Draft, adding one more rotational piece behind that duo is near the top of my wish list. Or the Steelers will continue to foolishly place themselves in this same position, hoping for a couple of lopsided victories to bail them out.