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Young players top the Steelers Pro Football Focus defensive grades

The Pittsburgh Steelers kicked off their 2023 season with a decisive preseason win on the road. The Steelers starters saw limited action on offense and about half of them didn’t even take the field on defense. But the players on field got the job done as a team to get the 27-17 win.

But how did the individual players grade out?

For this exercise, we will be looking at the player grades from Pro Football Focus (PFF) for the Steelers preseason Week 1 performance. Before going any further, I must give my typical disclaimer that PFF grades are subjective and merely an opinion. While some people rely on them heavily, others are quite skeptical of the process in which they are determined. It is completely up to each person as to how much stock they put into PFF’s grades. For me, I often look at the grades to see if my own “eye test” lines up with what others viewed as how a player performed and sometimes it causes me to look more at a certain player when looking at things a second time. If nothing more, the grades create a discussion about how accurate, or inaccurate, they are each week.

Instead of looking at the entire team at once, we break up the scores into offense and defense. After looking at the offense yesterday, next up this week is the defense. Included will be the players who played at least one snap and the total snap counts for each player will be included. For reference sake, the Steelers played 73 snaps on defense in Friday’s game.


Overall

Top 5 (regardless of position)

S Trenton Thompson: 90.1 (25 snaps)
OLB Nick Herbig: 89.8 (13 snaps)
CB Duke Dawson: 83.9 (15 snaps)
DT Keeanu Benton: 74.0 (28 snaps)
DT Armon Watts: 72.4 (19 snaps)

Bottom 5 (regardless of position)

CB Chandon Sullivan: 39.8 (13 snaps)
S Jalen Elliott: 32.9 (28 snaps)
DT Manny Jones: 32.7 (26 snaps)
ILB Cole Holcomb: 29.0 (25 snaps)
ILB Tanner Muse: 26.7 (30 snaps)


Defensive Front Five

OLB Nick Herbig: 89.8 (13 snaps)
DT Keeanu Benton: 74.0 (28 snaps)
DT Armon Watts: 72.4 (19 snaps)
DT Isaiahh Loudermilk: 70.2 (19 snaps)
OLB Alex Highsmith: 70.0 (3 snaps)
OLB Marcus Golden: 66.0 (10 snaps)
DT Jonathan Marshall: 63.9 (14 snaps)
OLB Toby Ndukwe: 58.4 (31 snaps)
DT James Nyamwaya: 54.5 (10 snaps)
DT DeMarvin Leal: 45.7 (29 snaps)
DT Breiden Fehoko: 45.1 (15 snaps)
DT Montravius Adams: 44.3 (14 snaps)
OLB David Perales: 42.0 (50 snaps)
OLB Quincy Roche: 41.4 (39 snaps)
DT Manny Jones: 32.7 (26 snaps)

For anyone who watched Friday night’s game, it is not a surprise that Nick Herbig topped the front five list. With Herbig being credited with 1.5 sacks, both Herbig and Keeanu Benton made their presence known when given the opportunity. When it comes to Herbig, hopefully he can see snaps in the first half this coming week. Instead, a lot of the OLB snaps went to David Perales and Quincy Roche who came in at the bottom of the list. For someone like Alex Highsmith, only getting three defensive snaps didn’t allow for a lot of splash.

Inside Linebackers

ILB Elandon Roberts: 67.7 (2 snaps)
ILB Mark Robinson: 65.1 (48 snaps)
ILB Nick Kwiatkoski: 64.8 (18 snaps)
ILB Kwon Alexander: 55.6 (23 snaps)
ILB Cole Holcomb: 29.0 (25 snaps)
ILB Tanner Muse: 26.7 (30 snaps)

While it was great to see Elandon Roberts turn in a quality PFF score, only getting two snaps on defense isn’t an accurate sample size to draw a definitive conclusion. Mark Robinson made the most of his opportunities and Nick Kwiatkoski was looking good prior to his injury. I expect most Steeler fans would have placed Kwon Alexander at the top of this list, especially with his 69.6 run defense score which led the group. But Alexander was dinged for a missed tackle and did give up both receptions in which PFF said he was targeted.

Defensive Backs

S Trenton Thompson: 90.1 (25 snaps)
CB Duke Dawson: 83.9 (15 snaps)
CB Isaiah Dunn: 70.2 (22 snaps)
S Elijah Riley: 69.2 (17 snaps)
CB Chris Wilcox: 65.6 (26 snaps)
CB Madre Harper: 64.6 (39 snaps)
CB Luq Barcoo: 61.2 (31 snaps)
CB Levi Wallace: 61.1 (3 snaps)
S Miles Killebrew: 57.9 (34 snaps)
S Kenny Robinson: 55.1 (33 snaps)
CB James Pierre: 44.5 (51 snaps)
CB Chandon Sullivan: 39.8 (13 snaps)
S Jalen Elliott: 32.9 (28 snaps)

While PFF prides itself on not allowing splash players to be the only measuring stick they use and they look at each snap equally, the score of Trenton Thompson does not support that narrative. Thompson had a 22.6 tackling score because he missed both tackles he attempted and gave up a 23 yard reception on one of the two times he was targeted. Yet somehow Thompson comes through with a score in the 90s, most liekly based on his interception. Duke Dawson also had a quality score on his 15 snaps before he left the game due to injury. As expected, Elijah Riley continued to make a good case for making the roster. James Pierre played the most snaps on defense and, despite an 82.4 tackling score, landed toward the bottom of the list particularly because of a 39.6 coverage score after giving up six receptions on all six times he was targeted according to PFF.


So, what do you think of the above grades? Do they pass the eye test? Let us know your thoughts on the Steelers’ defensive grades in the comments below.

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