Without running mate Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward been at disruptive best for Steelers
MInkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt have emerged as legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates, Bud Dupree has played the best football of his career in a contract year and Devin Bush has played well enough it appears the Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-draft-pick investment to get him was a wise one.
Cameron Heyward, perhaps, is not the best player on the Steelers defense. But he might be its steadiest. In his ninth season and fourth as defensive captain, Heyward is arguably having a season on par with his breakout 2017 All-Pro campaign.
“Obviously, he’s a big component of what we do on defense,” coach Mike Tomlin said, “and always is, and is just a quality player week in and week out. So, I’m never surprised when he’s in the middle of things.”
Heyward entered Thursday night’s matchup at the Cleveland Browns coming off a game in which he was certainly in the middle of things. Playing a season-high 69 defensive snaps (the most he has played in any non-overtime game over the past four seasons), Heyward was credited with a season-high seven quarterback pressures (five hurries, one sack, one QB hit) by Pro Football Focus and had two batted-down balls during a 17-12 win against the Los Angeles Rams.
That it came a day before the NFLPA named Heyward its weekly Community MVP and two days before Pro Bowl voting began further highlighted the spotlight on Heyward, who typically makes a more under-the-radar impact.
Statistically, at least.
“Oh, he creates a lot around him,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “(Forcing quarterbacks to) step up in the pocket, that’s probably the biggest thing he does. If he can get that pressure up the middle, then T.J. and Bud are a problem on the outside.”
The Steelers lead the AFC in sacks with 33. Heyward has 5½ sacks, and, per PFF, has 33 “pressures” of a quarterback overall (22 hurries and five hits, each of which rank in the top five of the NFL).
Heyward has 50½ career sacks, good enough for the second most in Steelers history for a defensive lineman. Just four active linemen in the NFL have more career sacks.
Relive Cameron Heyward's top plays from the 2018 season. pic.twitter.com/PXtAWJw1CL
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 16, 2019
Butler, in his 21st season as an NFL assistant coach, this week said he hasn’t seen many players as good as Heyward at collapsing the pocket or taking on double teams.
“No, not a lot,” Butler said. “I mean, there’s some big guys in the league and all of them kind of crush that pocket, and that’s what we’re looking for from him. If we can crush the pocket and the quarterback can’t step up, our edge guys can get to him.”
For more than a quarter century, that had been the life of a defensive lineman in the Steelers 3-4 scheme: occupy blockers so the inside linebackers make the tackles in the running game and the outside ‘backers rack up the sacks.
With an assist from a shift in philosophy from Tomlin and Butler, Heyward has begun to change expectations for production from a Steelers 3-4 defensive lineman. He made the Pro Bowl and achieved All-Pro status with a team-high 12 sacks in 2017.
A subtle strategic move helped, too: the Steelers in 2018 changed Heyward’s position from “defensive end” to “defensive tackle” on their roster. It was more reflective of the peers from across the league that he shares a similar job description with.
And among “interior defensive linemen,” as Pro Football Focus defines it, Heyward is rated as the second best in the league. Heading into Week 11, PFF rates Heyward as the eighth-best pass-rusher among anyone at his position and the best tackler with the third-most tackles.
Butler said the Steelers monitor the fatigue of Heyward, as they do all their defensive linemen, but the team will use him “as much as we can keep him on the field.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .