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Why the Steelers Made Huge Change to DL Rotation



Steelers OLBs T.J. Watt and Alex HIghsmith
Steelers OLBs T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith celebrate after a sack, Oct. 29, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers played against the Packers with a shorter rotation than usual at outside linebacker and even on the interior. But T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith each played over 90 percent of the team’s snaps, and by the end of it, the group looked gassed and tired. But is it a concern for the Steelers? For defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, there is no worry about those guys playing even more as long as they are up to it.

“Well, the deal is this: If T.J. (Watt) and Alex (Highsmith) can go and want to go, they’re on the field,” Austin said. “That’s just the end of the story. They’re the best guys we’ve got. Those other guys will take their turns when those opportunities present themselves. But other than that, if T.J. (Watt) and Alex (Highsmith) can go and they’re playing at a high level, I’m not going to pull them off the field. They need to get off the field, it’s on them.”

Steelers OLB Markus Golden

Steelers OLB Markus Golden against the Tennessee Titans, Nov. 2, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Against the Packers, the Steelers had 68 snaps of defense. T.J. Watt played 66, Alex Highsmith 63, Keeanu Benton 45, Larry Ogunjobi 44 and Cam Heyward 40. The rest of the Steelers’ defensive linemen and edge rushers played a combined 41 snaps. Austin acknowledged the change on the interior, too. For example, DeMarvin Leal played just four snaps. Nick Herbig and Markus Golden played a combined seven snaps. These rotations shortened drastically.

“Sure, it has, but it’s really the same thing,” Austin said. “We know right now Cam (Heyward) can’t play as many snaps as he would like to, so there will be some rotation in there. At the end of the day if our big guys, if our best guys can play and they’re able to play, then we want them on the field.”

The Odd Albatross

Benton, Golden and Herbig were all acquisitions this offseason to bolster the front-line depth and give the Steelers a realistic second unit, as well as injury protection for their stars. That’s the way the Steelers have been deploying their front seven this season, with some exceptions for injuries. But for whatever reason, that all went out the window last week against the Green Bay Packers.

Steelers NT Keeanu Benton

Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Keeanu Benton against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 18, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Austin’s answer does not glean into that part of it. For one, this answer could be used for the entire season. But what did the Packers do that made it so different? The best guess is that it is a one-week anomaly and returns to normal next week against the Browns. One of the Steelers’ greatest strengths is having that depth to keep these guys fresh and productive. They lost significant juice against the Packers and got hurt because of that.

Most other teams in the league use a deep rotation, too. It makes a lot of sense, even if you have stars. Guys like Golden and Herbig do not see many snaps, but playing them for 12 to 15 snaps makes enough sense to allow peak productivity. It is something that the staff needs to be conscious of this week against the Browns.