‘I’m Not Gonna Pull ‘Em Off The Field’: Teryl Austin Not Concerned With Increase Snap Counts For T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith
All offseason there was an emphasis on acquiring and developing depth at the outside linebacker position behind the dynamic duo of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The front office, led by General Manager Omar Khan, seemingly accomplished that with the signing of veteran Markus Golden and the selection of rookie Nick Herbig in the fourth round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Throughout the 2023 season Golden and Herbig have had their moments. Golden has three sacks on the season while Herbig has one sack and one forced fumble.
Yet over the last two weeks, the snap counts for the two have waned dramatically as the Steelers are leaning heavily on Watt and Highsmith, something they said they didn’t want to do throughout games.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin changed his tune on that Thursday during his session with the media, stated that as long as the two are healthy, they aren’t coming off the field.
“Well, the deal is this, if T.J. and Alex can go and want to go, they’re on the field. That’s just the end of the story. They’re the best guys we’ve got,” Austin said to reporters, according to audio provided by the Steelers’ Media Relations Department. “And those other guys will take their turns when those opportunities present themselves. But other than that, man, if T.J. and Alex can go and they’re playing at a high level, I’m not gonna pull ’em off the field.
“They need to get off the field. It’s on them.”
On the surface, that thought from Austin makes a great deal of sense. You want your best players out there as much as possible. Yet, outside linebacker is a demanding position within the Steelers’ defense on a snap-by-snap basis. You could be rushing the passer one rep, defending the run the next, and then dropping into cover on yet another rep. It can take a lot out of you, which is why it’s important to have capable depth behind the top guys, helping them stay fresh throughout games and the season.
The Steelers were doing that early in the season with Golden and Herbig, but they have seemed to change course in recent weeks. Watt played 97% the snaps against the Packers just one week after playing 94.2% against the Titans. He hadn’t played 97% of the snaps since late in the 2018 season against the New Orleans Saints. That is nearly five full seasons between those amount of snaps.
Highsmith even played 93% of the snaps against the Packers, leaving just seven total snaps combined for Golden and Herbig against Green Bay. That doesn’t seem all that productive for the Steelers in-game, or moving forward with key AFC North battles ahead against the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals in back-to-back weeks.
Below is a look at the snap count defensively from the win over the Packers in Week 10.
It’s not just the outside linebackers, either. The Steelers have adjusted their defensive line rotation quite a bit, too.
Austin downplayed that as well.
”Sure, it has, but it’s really the same thing. I mean, we all know right now Cam [Heyward] can’t play as many snaps as he usually would like to so there’ll be some rotation in there,” Austin said, according to audio provided by the team. “But at the end of the day, man, if our big guys, our best guys can play and they’re able to play, then we want them on the field.”
Pittsburgh is going to need its star defenders fresh, rather than feeling run down. Sometimes you have to protect players from themselves and think about the long game rather than being caught up in the moment.
Hopefully the Steelers do a better job in the weeks ahead monitoring Highsmith’s and Watt’s snap counts and continue to rotate as many defensive linemen as possible. That keeps snap counts from getting too out of control, allowing guys to have enough left in the tank for late in games and late in the season, while also continuing to develop depth.