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How much will the Steelers rookies play in Week 1?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are diligently preparing for their Week 1 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday at Acrisure Stadium. With the Steelers not only finishing the preseason with a 3–0 record but doing so in a dominating fashion, there is quite a buzz in Steelers’ Nation with excitement around the new pieces and young players the Steelers have added to this 2023 team.

While players who joined the Steelers as free agents have often stepped in and help the team right away, when it comes to the Steelers playing the rookies to start the season many times it has been a gradual process. While there are some exceptions, the Steelers try not to overwhelm their rookie class too much to start off the season. And like what Coach Tomlin said in his press conference Tuesday, “If you have people playing well, oftentimes, it means young, capable guys get an opportunity to watch as they grow and develop.”

So how much should Steelers’ fans expect the rookies to play this Sunday against the 49ers?

While being in the prediction business is fine, rather than answer the question for you I shall merely give you the data that I presented on the Steelers Stat Geek podcast this week and let you set your own expectations.

With that being said, here are the number of snaps played by Steelers rookies in Week 1 in each of the past six seasons going back to 2017. It should be noted these players are deemed rookies by playing in their first career game. In some cases, players who were on a practice squad in previous years were getting their first action and there is no distinction made with these players versus ones who are in their first eligible NFL season. Additionally, the number of players who comprised these snaps will be given as well as the total number of players who contributed snaps in Week 1 as rookies.


2022

Offense: 69 (3 players)
Defense: 17 (1 player)
Special teams: 35 (3 players)
Total rookies who played: 4

With Kenny Pickett not seeing the field until Week 4, the players who logged snaps of offense were George Pickens, Connor Heyward, and Jaylen Warren. DeMarvin Leal was the only player from the Steelers rookie class to get into the rotation on defense in the Steelers first game. Even without counting Pickett, The number of snaps by the Steelers’ rookie class was significantly higher by the end of the season.


2021

Offense: 200 (4 players)
Defense: 69 (2 players)
Special teams: 58 (7 players)
Total rookies who played: 9

This season is definitely the exception and not the rule. By the Steelers having to deal with the salary cap reduction and unable to utilize free agency in the way they typically would, the rookie class was called on much more in Week 1 than any other year outlined. Najee Harris, Dan Moore, and Kendrick Greene each saw over 50 snaps or offense while Pat Freiermuth also had significant contributions. On defense, all but one of the snaps came from Tre Norwood with the other being Jamir Jones. Even special teams saw a jump with it being both Pressley Harvin’s and Christian Kuntz’s first NFL action.


2020

Offense: 25 (2 players)
Defense: 10 (1 player)
Special teams: 41 (5 players)
Total rookies who played: 5

The Steelers rookies weren’t overly used in 2020 as Chase Claypool lead the way with 19 offensive snaps and Alex Highsmith had all 10 defensive snaps.


2019

Offense: 24 (1 player)
Defense: 123 (2 players)
Special teams: 48 (4 players)
Total rookies who played: 5

Diontae Johnson was the only rookie on the field on offense in Week 1 for the Steelers in 2019, but this was the most defensive snaps played in any of the years covered. While Devon Bush had 53 snaps on defense in his first NFL game, Kameron Kelly played every defensive snap (70) and was picked on extensively by Tom Brady. Two weeks later, the Steelers had Minkah Fitzpatrick playing at the position.


2018

Offense: 28 (2 players)
Defense: 74 (1 player)
Special teams: 40 (3 players)
Total rookies who played: 4

The Steelers had limited contributions from Chuks Okorafor and James Washington in their first game of their rookie season while Terrell Edmunds was called on to play 74 defensive snaps in his rookie debut due to the injury to Morgan Burnett.


2017

Offense: 33 (2 players)
Defense: 96 (1 players)
Special teams: 33 (4 players)
Total rookies who played: 4

As expected, T.J. Watt saw a large portion of snaps in his first game with 62, but it was also the rookie debut of Mike Hilton who added 34 defensive snaps. On offense, there were 25 snaps played by JuJu Smith-Schuster and eight snaps by James Conner.


In looking at the data over the last six seasons, the Steelers had four of their six years where on offense rookies played 33 snaps or less. On defense, there were significantly more snaps played over various seasons as rookies played 74 snaps or more in four of the six years.

This year there are some rookies who could see some significant snaps on offense in Darnell Washington and Calvin Austin who is scheduled to play in his first NFL game and therefore would count as a rookie. The three offensive linemen in Broderick Jones, Spencer Anderson, and Dylan Cook are not expected to see the field that much if at all and one of them likely will not even have a helmet. On defense, the Steelers could see some significant contributions in a rotational manner from Joey Porter Jr., Keeanu Benton, and Nick Herbig. But for these players, chances are they will need to be efficient and make an impact while only seeing a limited number of snaps.

Check out a breakdown of rookie snaps and a variety of stats for the Steeelrs upcoming matchup with the 49ers by clicking on the latest Steelers Stat Geek podcast below:

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