Over the course of the first two games of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have deployed 18 different players on the defensive side of the ball, none of which were due to injury. While the ‘starters’ consist of the obvious from T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward to Tyson Alualu and Mike Hilton, numerous others have gotten on the field as well.
That includes the linebackers, Alex Highsmith, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, and Robert Spillane. That includes Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley up front. On the back end, you have Cameron Sutton. And they haven’t even gotten Sean Davis involved yet since bringing him back, if they intend to.
Asked to explain why so many people have been rotated in and out over the first two weeks, Mike Tomlin told reporters yesterday, “we need to play a lot of people, particularly as it pertains to rushing the quarterback. We have to keep fresh people available to us there and on possession downs”.
“The game itself at this level has become such a sub-package game that quality sub-package defenders like Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton—whether or not they come out of the tunnel and are listed as starters—have major roles for us”, he expanded. “The downs that they play on possession downs are significant ones and it makes them significant components of our strategic defensive structure”.
I think we’re long past the point of questioning whether or not nickel corners are starters, but Sutton has already played 34 snaps this year and is tracking to play close to 300 on the season, which would be a career-high, and that is assuming that he doesn’t start any games, because he is the next man up at all three starting cornerback positions, with Justin Layne and James Pierre behind him.
Assuming he ever dresses for a game this year, Ulysees Gilbert III is another player who could realistically see playing time this year. The Steelers worked in Spillane some in Week One during an extended drive to give Vince Williams a breather. Gilbert could be more dynamic thanks to his athleticism, but he is evidently not dressing due to special teams helmets being needed elsewhere (including for Pierre).
Despite the rotation up front, the Steelers have four of the most productive pass rushers in the NFL so far through the first two weeks in Heyward, Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and Bud Dupree, all of whom have generated at least 12 pressures and have contributed to at least one sack, the group combining for five so far and on a trajectory to put up 40 just among themselves on the season.