It always seems to be a priority discussion in the offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their coaches. We hear about the need for quality depth and the ability to have rotations, particularly on defense, along the defensive line and at the outside linebacker position. Rarely does it actually come to fruition.
We’re having the same discussions this year, at least at outside linebacker, following the departures of Bud Dupree and Ola Adeniyi, we’re talking about Cassius Marsh and Quincy Roche as the top two options to spell T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the latter himself just a second-year player with two career sacks.
Back during minicamp, defensive coordinator Keith Butler was asked about the importance of being able to give his guys like Watt some time off the field, and he said that that’s largely something they monitor on their own—but there are also times where it’s non-negotiable.
“A lot of times those guys have to tell us that themselves, and they do”, he said about starters being spelled, particularly a player like Watt, via a transcript provided by the team’s media department. “He’s always been good about that on the sideline, saying, ‘I’m tired’, or, ‘I need a break’, or, ‘I don’t need a break’”.
Last season, Watt played at least 77 percent of the snaps in every single game, sans the finale in which he was held out. He topped 92 percent of the snaps in six of his 15 games played, and hit at least 85 percent 12 times. Part of that is simply because of the amount of occasions in which his services are demanded.
“To me, a player like that has gotta be in the game when it’s nut-cutting time”, Butler said in a way that only he can. “When is it nut-cutting time? Usually, early in the fourth quarter to the middle of the fourth quarter because it’s real tight a lot of times in the people that you’re playing. So we’ve got to be aware of where he’s at in terms of how he’s feeling that day and where he can be most productive in that critical time that we have to win football games”.
But nut-cutting time also factors into the broader discussion of rotating. You want him to be available for those critical, nut-cutting moments, which makes it important to pace him throughout the game so that he isn’t burned out when he’s needed most.
Do they have serviceable alternatives in Marsh and Roche to absorb a couple dozen snaps or so per game for their starting edge defenders? That’s something they’ll figure out over time. If they don’t feel they do, they could still well add a veteran free agent.