As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Our X Factor for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
X Factor: Backup Defensive Linemen
And I’m referring to backup linemen who probably won’t play in such a role tomorrow. As of this writing, we don’t know exactly who will be sitting out of the finale aside from Ben Roethlisberger. But based on this week’s practice report, odds are high Cam Heyward won’t play. He sat out two of three days of practice.
It would be wise for the team to be mindful of Stephon Tuitt and to a lesser extent, Tyson Alualu’s snaps. Those guys have logged a ton of time this season and Alualu is well on the wrong side of 30. With four games to win a Super Bowl, getting the anchors of the defensive line as much time off is the practical move. Tuitt and Alualu will likely play but on reduced snaps counts.
Pittsburgh has the defensive line depth to rest those guys. Presuming Heyward is inactive, all four normally backup defensive linemen will dress: Chris Wormley, Henry Mondeaux, Carlos Davis, and Isaiah Buggs. Every one of those guys will see significant time. And they’ll be challenged against a Browns’ offense boasting one of football’s top rushing attacks.
In the first Steelers/Browns matchup, Pittsburgh held Cleveland’s run game in check. Just 75 yards on 22 carries. But that feels like an eternity ago. Both teams are much different now. The Browns will have two key pieces they didn’t before in OG Wyatt Teller (one of the league’s most underrated players, not just linemen) and RB Nick Chubb. Pittsburgh will be without several players they had before: Heyward, OLB TJ Watt, not to mention the losses of Devin Bush and Bud Dupree.
If this defensive line doesn’t hold up, Pittsburgh’s in for a long day. That starts with being assignment sound, an issue guys like the rookie Davis and Buggs have had problems with this season. Buggs in particular. The talent is there, he’s flashed on tape, but the fact he was passed up by a 7th round rookie is disappointing to his stock. The Browns are a fundamentally sound unit and if you give Chubb or Kareem Hunt a crease, they’re going to capitalize.
As Keith Butler discussed Thursday, this game functions like a preseason game those young players missed out on in the summer. A chance for Mondeaux, Davis, and Buggs to put plenty of tape out there. And another opportunity for Chris Wormley to show and build his value as an impending free agent. Those guys haven’t played much over the last month with Pittsburgh relying heavily on their top three – Heyward, Tuitt, and Alualu – to play 85-90% of the time. Now the Steelers will get a long look at the rest of the group to test their consistency and just as importantly, their consistency. Not every guy can be like Heyward and hold up playing 80%+ of the snaps.