If the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t operating with a clear plan heading into the 2016 NFL Draft, they clearly are now, and that plan is simple: play the rookies. The Steelers used their top picks in the first, second, and third rounds of the draft to add defensive players at areas of need at cornerback, safety, and nose tackle, respectively, and, as of Week 11, all three of them have entered the starting lineup.
On Sunday, against the Browns, the Steelers logged 66 defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. Second-round safety Sean Davis played all 66 snaps. First-round cornerback Artie Burns only came off the field for two snaps. Third-round nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who played both in the 3-4 and nickel, logged 41 snaps, or over 60 percent of the total.
Combined, the Steelers’ top three picks of their rookie draft class logged 171 snaps on Sunday, which, combined with their 890 total snaps accumulated through the first nine games of the season, brings up their collective snap total for the year up to 1061.
Out of roughly 660 defensive snaps, times 11 players per snap, there have been a total of 7260 possible player snaps on the defensive side of the ball this year, and rookies have been responsible for about 15 percent of that total.
The number should only tick up over the course of the final six games, now that all three rookies have solidified themselves in the starting lineup. Davis appears set to be an every-down player now, which is something that he didn’t even do when he was ‘starting’ earlier this season as the slot cornerback. Sunday was the first game in which he played all or nearly all snaps.
Burns has been in the starting lineup for a few weeks now, and it would appear that he has been playing well enough that the coaching staff is not considering making any changes at the right cornerback spot. He does lead the team with two interceptions, with both of them coming in the past three weeks. He had an interception on Sunday, but he could have had another one as well during the game that he could not hold on to.
As for Hargrave, he has actually technically been in the starting lineup since the beginning of the season, but the nose tackle position is just so sparsely used—more so even at the beginning of the season—that he did not have a lot of opportunities for playing time.
With Cameron Heyward now gone for the remainder of the season, however, he is taking some of those reps that Heyward would have gotten in the nickel defense as an interior pass-rushing defensive tackle, and he had some effectiveness in doing so, notching his first sack.
Come hell or high water, this appears to be the defense the Steelers intend to ride out the rest of the year with. A plan was formulated, whether prior to or after the draft, and now they are executing that plan, with the rookies on the field.