If you’ve ever wondered why Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson haven’t played more this season, despite their rookie success, Mike Tomlin has an answer. It’s all about keeping those guys fresh for the end of the season, avoiding the dreadful rookie wall so many run into.
Tomlin spoke about it during his Tuesday press conference when asked about the exposure he gives rookies and if he can see growth from the start to the end of the year.
“I think exposure is good,” he said. “There’s a couple caveats to that. Too much exposure can be negative in young guys. And that’s why we’ve been thoughtful about the exposure of these people. That’s why we don’t play Devin Bush in all packages although he has the talent level to play in all packages. That’s why we’re thoughtful about the things that we’ve asked Diontae to do. He doesn’t play 60 snaps a game and has not, although he’s been available to us because we wanted to manage that exposure because too much exposure is negative.”
Tomlin is being literal about Johnson’s snap count. He hasn’t logged 60 offensive snaps in a game this season. His single game highs are a pair of 53 snap outputs against the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Rams and is averaging just 41 over the last month.
Bush has seen his snap count drop as the season’s gone on. During the first four weeks of 2019, he averaged 65 snaps and played 100% of the time in Week 3 and 4. Now? Mark Barron has been the closest thing to an every down player, though Pittsburgh has improved their ILB rotation, and Bush is averaging just under 44 snaps per game since Week 10.
It’s all in an effort to avoid tired legs for the final few weeks as the team makes a playoff push. Followed by a playoff run that will test the physical and mental toughness of any player, much less a rookie experiencing it for the first time.
“But also we realized that, you know, as we push into Game 14 that most of these guys, unless they played at Alabama or somewhere, are in uncharted territory and so we’re thoughtful about that exposure. We want them to be a young people on the rise as we get to this portion of the season.”
This time last year for most rookies, their season is either over or wrapping up. Maybe a bowl game in a few weeks and for a select few players, a mini-playoff run in college football’s current, brief format. In the NFL, the party is just getting started. Three more regular season games and potentially another four in the playoffs, from Wild Card to Super Bowl with only a week of rest for whoever gets that far.
The most important element is that Johnson and Bush are playing well and helping the team make that final push. Johnson had the best game of his career in Sunday’s win over Arizona and though Bush is quieter than his blazing start, he’s still played well for a rookie carrying heavy expectations on his shoulders.