The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2020 season fully expected to have one of the top defenses in the league. They have so far this year, overall, but they have certainly had their warts as well, giving up an unusual number of conversions on third and long, for example, and a high number of explosive passing plays despite still being one of the best passing defenses.
Part of the problem is just who is in the game, through the season-long process of attrition. Just look at some of the players who were in Sunday’s loss against the Buffalo Bills, and the number of snaps that they played. Cameron Sutton played 72 out of 75 snaps, for example. Alex Highsmith played 68, and Avery Williamson, 67.
You can go on down the list. Marcus Allen, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, logged 56 snaps. Ulysees Gilbert III, who just came off of the Reserve/Injured List, saw 19 snaps, while Ola Adeniyi played 18, and Justin Layne, 18.
Equally important snap counts: Devin Bush: 0. Bud Dupree: 0. Joe Haden: 0. Vince Williams: 0. Robert Spillane: 0. Some of these guys they will get back, some sooner rather than later. Others they won’t be seeing again until 2021, if at all.
At a certain point, the war of attrition takes its toll on your personnel, and in turn, takes a toll on what you are able to do as a unit—and what you have to do schematically or otherwise in order to compensate for who is not there.
Head coach Mike Tomlin admitted as much following Sunday’s loss to the Buffalo Bills, but only when asked if the lack of availability of some of his key players limited what they were able to do, and he did not offer it as an excuse. “Yes, but that’s life in our game”, he said in response to the question. “You put together a plan with what you have to work with, and you play ball”.
That’s the spirit of the Next Man Up mentality, and it’s far more important that your players in the locker room believe in that than it is that fans do. Professional athletes are going to believe in themselves. And the teammates of these backups are the ones who see all the work that they put in to preparing themselves week in and week out.
Still, you can only weather so many ‘next men’ being up before it seriously impairs your ability to perform at a certain level. Some things that you do might be built around the unique traits of a certain player that his replacement will not have. Insulation against injuries is crucial to success, but it can only take you so far.