During the Steelers’ three games in 12 days schedule, Mike Tomlin emphasized the importance of player rotation to ensure his group stayed fresh. Apparently, that idea doesn’t apply to the defensive line. Pittsburgh’s starters are playing more than ever. And you have to wonder if it’s wearing the group thin.
Over the past month of action, the usage of the Steelers’ backup defensive linemen has shrunk. Chris Wormley, Henry Mondeaux, Carlos Davis, and Isaiah Buggs have played less and less. Take a look at their combined snap count since Week 12.
Backup DL snaps
Week 12 – 16 (29.3%)
Week 13 – 14 (19.4%)
Week 14 – 10 (13.3%)
Week 15 – 6 (10.7%)
Even knowing that only three backup defensive linemen dress on gameday, that’s a terribly small number of snaps. Six total defensive snaps against the Bengals across three linemen? What’s their use to this team? They have extremely limited special teams value, sans Mondeaux, who is one of the only defensive linemen in football to run down kicks.
There’s a couple of obvious caveats. Tyson Alualu is the starting nose tackle but rotates in nickel packages with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt when they need breathers. And Heyward/Tuitt are two of the top defensive linemen in football. It’s hard to take elite talent off the field knowing the dropoff that exists behind it. But there’s a potential these guys are being overworked, especially given the recent, hectic schedule. Here are the number of snaps Heyward has missed the last four games.
Week 12 – 6 snaps
Week 13 – 5 snaps
Week 14 – 9 snaps
Week 15 – 6 snaps
Heyward is an incredible talent. When he’s off the field, the Steelers’ defense is undeniably worse. But there has to be a correlation between a defense struggling more in the second half and late in games; the Steelers’ defense has been on the field for a combined 13:58 over the last five minutes of the three-game losing streak. Buffalo held the ball for the final seven minutes of the game. Cincinnati went on a long, five-minute drive to kick the game-sealing field goal.
For the season, Heyward’s played 83.3% of the defense’s snaps. It’s the fourth highest percentage of any defensive linemen in football. Even in comfortable victories, he’s played plenty. 84% of the snaps in Pittsburgh’s 38-7 win over Cleveland. His snap count is up from 80% last season and on pace to be his highest percentage since 2015 when he logged 88% of the snaps. That year, Tomlin was adamant about having a stronger defensive line rotation. Now, the Steelers are in a similar spot with a five-year-older Heyward.
Heyward and Tuitt need to play a majority of the time. They need to play in the most critical situations. But they also need to be as fresh as possible for late-games, for late in the season, and that means a slight reduction of snaps from the 90% range – where Heyward’s been for several weeks – to something closer to 75-80%.