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2018 Offseason Questions: When Do You Play A Backup Over An Injured Starter?

The journey toward Super Bowl LII ended far too prematurely for the Pittsburgh Steelers, sending them into offseason mode before we were ready for it. But we are in it now, and are ready to move on, through the Combine, through free agency, through the draft, into OTAs, and beyond.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions over the years and will continue to do so, and at the moment, there seem to be a ton of questions that need answering. A surprise early exit in the postseason will do that to you though, especially when it happens in the way it did.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring developments all throughout the offseason process, all the way down to Latrobe. Pending free agents, possible veteran roster cuts, contract extensions, pre-draft visits, pro days, all of it will have its place when the time arises.

Question: How do you decide when to play an injured starter over his backup?

This became a topic once again because of Stephon Tuitt’s comments published yesterday in which he talked about the fact that the left bicep injury he suffered on the second snap of the regular season was something that affected him throughout the year, even though he only missed a couple of games due to it.

Despite dealing with the injury, and having that injury affect his performance on the field, he consistently played 50-60 snaps whenever he was active. Even in the regular season finale, during which Cameron Heyward rested, Tuitt still played, and in fact saw a season-high 59 snaps.

His traditional stat line suggests that he had an average season at best. In what was effectively 11 games (because he played just two snaps in the first game), he recorded 25 tackles with three sacks, a forced fumble, and two passes defensed. That would work out to about 36 tackles over a full season and an extra sack or two.

While we are speaking with the advantage of hindsight, the question we revisit here is whether or not the Steelers would have been better off playing Tyson Alualu more over Tuitt. Alualu at least was a player who was stout against the run, even if his pass-rush work was spotty at best (still managing a career-high four sacks though).

This question is obviously not just about Tuitt, of course, but is a general one that frankly comes up every year. They say that nobody is 100 percent by the end of the season, so everybody is playing hurt to some degree. But how do you actually go about deciding when and how much to play a starter who is dealing with an injury? Obviously the quality of the backups behind him is a key part of the equation.

I don’t think it’s a simple answer by any means. Tuitt, for example, still performed pretty well in spite of his injury. Prior to 2017 and the addition of Alualu, I don’t think there would be any argument that an injured Tuitt was a better option than the backups available.

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