The Steelers' defense is playing some otherworldly football right now. That is undeniable. When you hold the defending NFC champions' offense to three points in a game -- the other nine came courtesy of the Rams defense -- you're doing some things right.
But it also came at a cost. Linebackers Bud Dupree and Mark Barron played 71 of a possible 77 defense snaps. T.J. Watt played 64. More important, defensive end Cam Heyward played 69 snaps (89.6 percent), while nose tackle Javon Hargrave logged 56 (72.7 percent).
Those guys all knew they were in for a heavier workload when Stephon Tuitt was lost for the season a month ago. But with a quick turnaround from Sunday's 17-12 victory to Thursday night's game in Cleveland, is fatigue a concern for the defensive front?
I asked an obviously exhausted Heyward after the game if he had played every snap -- as it seemed at the time.
"Not every snap. We rotated a little bit, but whoo, that was a heck of a game," Heyward said.
When the Steelers lost to the Jaguars in the AFC Divisional Playoffs in 2017, it was noted by many that Heyward and Tuitt had logged too many snaps that season and looked worn down for the playoff game. Heyward had 13 games that season in which he played more than 80 percent of the team's defensive snaps, while Tuitt had 11 in the 12 games he played in the regular season that year.
Because of that, the Steelers had rotated their defensive linemen more since. Heyward had just 10 games with more than 80 percent of the snaps in 2018, while Tuitt was at four, as the team tried to keep them more fresh for later in the year. Heyward has played more than 80 percent of the snaps just three times this season, but two of those have come in the past three games without Tuitt. And in the game he didn't play more than 80 percent -- against the Dolphins -- he was at 78.6 percent.
"I don't even know how many snaps they had," Mike Tomlin said Monday of Heyward and Hargrave. "You are probably better informed of that than I am. We'll take a look at some of those things when we get an opportunity to. Right now, with the challenges we face, there's not a lot of time. Those guys understand that. We've all got to tote the load. Different people have got to tote the load more because of circumstances. We don't spend a lot of time worrying about what we've got to do. Those guys are doing it."
But it has to be a concern. There just aren't a lot of opportunities to take a player such as Heyward, primarily, off the field.
• Mason Rudolph played a much better game than the score indicated Sunday. He finished 22 of 38 for 242 yards and a touchdown. But his numbers would have been much better if not for four drops -- one each by JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels:
Three of those drops came on third downs, which really hurt, since at least two of them would have resulted in first downs that extended drives. And McDonald's drop would have at least set up a field goal attempt.
Tomlin said he doesn't spend a lot of time with his receivers dwelling on the dropped passes, especially on a short work week.
"We don't get an opportunity to practice much," Tomlin said. "We talk about it, but talking about it is just part of it. They've got to make plays when given the opportunity. They're receivers. If you have to spend a lot of time talking to receivers about receiving, you've got problems."
• After Rudolph essentially checked the ball down to Samuels 13 times in a win over the Colts, who don't allow opponents to push the ball downfield a lot, his pass distribution in this game was a lot different. James Washington, McDonald and Samuels all got seven targets, while Smith-Schuster and Johnson both got six. That's spreading the ball around to your primary receivers. And other than a bad pass or two, he was pretty much on the money.
Washington averaged 15 yards per catch on his six receptions. Johnson averaged 16 yards on his four catches. Smith-Schuster had three catches, averaging 14.7 yards per reception.
There's nothing wrong with that.
• People still insist the Steelers' coaching staff doesn't scheme or make adjustments. How can you watch a game in which Cooper Kupp, one of the NFL's most dangerous receivers, is held without a catch and not realize the coaching staff made a concerted effort to not allow him to get the ball?
The Steelers wanted to make someone -- anyone -- else beat them. But they weren't going to let Kupp be that guy.
It was a good job by Mike Hilton in the slot. And he had help on every play.
That opens up some other things. But the Steelers took Goff's woobie away. And without his woobie, he spent the day slobbering all over himself rather than chewing on his comforter.
• There's nothing ailing this offense right now that a viable running game can't solve.
Samuels is a situational running back. And those situations are largely throwing him the ball.
Trey Edmunds and Tony Brooks-James, a pair of undrafted players, are nice try-hard stories, but both were on the practice squad earlier this year.
Getting James Conner back against the Browns, which is expected to happen, will be a big boost. Conner isn't an elite NFL running back, but he's a very capable starter. And without him, the Steelers aren't capable of making any team respect their running game.
It's more about the runners, folks, than it is the offensive line.
• I get the angst with watching Ryan Switzer continue to return punts. But when you see Johnson fumble at the end of a return fighting for yards that just aren't there, it brings Switzer's good decision-making into play.
Switzer was 13th in the NFL in punt return average last season at 8.4 yards. Not great, but not horrible. He's an average NFL return man. Average might not be sexy. But with the way this defense is playing, you'll take a guy who just catches the ball and doesn't turn it over as opposed to a guy who might average a few more yards, but will put one on the ground every once in a while.
This team, right now, can't afford those kinds of turnovers.
• Both Ola Adeniyi (hip) and Anthony Chickillo (ribs) came out of Sunday's game with injuries that will leave them questionable -- at best -- for the game against the Browns. That's not great news for Dupree and Watt, though both could have big games against what is a terrible Cleveland offensive line.
• Jordan Berry is very quietly having a very solid season. He was one of the unsung heroes of the Steelers' win over the Rams.
Johnny Hekker gets a lot of publicity because he'll throw a pass every once in a while -- even if it's an interception, as it was in this game. And the Rams' punter is good. But Berry was the more consistent player at that position in this game. And considering the two combined for 17 punts, that was a big deal.
• Shawn Smith and his crew of merry officials just might be the worst team in the league. And that's saying something. After watching this group bungle and bumble their way through this game -- making it last more than 3 1/2 hours -- they'll be on my radar from now on.
Smith's crew also worked the Steelers' opener last year in Cleveland, calling 23 combined penalties in that game. They called 23 more Sunday, giving them 46 in two games involving the Steelers in the past two seasons. They called nearly two more penalties per game than the league average last season at 15.2 per game. This year, they were well below that, at just over 13. They must have decided that had to get back on track, because there were some real phantom calls both ways in this one.
Officials should be seen and not heard. Especially when Smith can't seem to explain things correctly.
• The Steelers opened as 2 or 3-point underdogs to the Browns. Has nobody watched the Browns play this season?
This is horrible matchup for Cleveland, which doesn't pass block real well and turns the ball over at an alarming rate.
What do the Steelers do defensively? They rush the passer well and force turnovers at a high rate.
Doesn't matter that the game is in Cleveland. They could play this game on the moon and it wouldn't matter. Baker Mayfield is going to be under pressure. And he will turn the ball over.
• The Steelers' move of Matt Feiler to left guard in place of B.J. Finney was all about getting their best pass blockers on the field to handle Aaron Donald. It had nothing to do with how the team feels about Finney and everything to do with Donald. The Steelers love Finney and what he brings to the table.
They also don't like to have to play both of their centers -- just in case something happens to one of them. Remember a couple of years ago when Maurkice Pouncey sat out the regular season finale against the Browns and Finney started at center? Finney got hurt early in that game, and with Pouncey inactive, they had to move Feiler to center. The results of that weren't great.
Pouncey, by the way, has been having issues with his snaps. That is apparent. But he's still a solid blocker.
Credit that to facing a player such as Donald, who will make you rush things you wouldn't normally rush.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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