The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to have found their two defensive ends of the future in the young veteran Cameron Heyward and rookie Stephon Tuitt, who in his first season will have made four starts.
Since entering the starting lineup last year, Heyward has rarely come off the field, rarely logging less than 85 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps in any given game. He has played 811 snaps this year, or 86.4 of all defensive snaps for the team.
With Tuitt, it seems the Steelers believe they may have found another player very much in the same mold, one who has both high endurance and a high motor. Since entering the starting lineup three weeks ago, Tuitt has logged 164 of 191 snaps, or nearly 86 percent of the Steelers’ snaps over that span. In his first 12 games, he only logged 172 snaps.
But now it’s just Heyward and Tuitt out there on a play to play basis, as the Steelers continue to primarily use their nickel defense with Antwon Blake on the field. Nose tackle Steve McLendon only logged 13 snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers added another 21 between the two.
It’s been a while since the Steelers have reliably had such defensive linemen that they could count on to be on the field with such great frequency, but it appears that that may be what they have found with the combination of Tuitt and Heyward.
No doubt this is exactly what the front office envisioned when they chose to draft Tuitt in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft back in May. The rookie’s advancement may have even been accelerated, considering he’s starting in his first season already.
We seem to be starting to see the fruits of this pairing, if the Steelers’ last game against the Chiefs is anything to go by. The defensive end duo combined to log 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble, combining for seven tackles. The defensive line also held Jamaal Charles to just 29 rushing yards on nine attempts.
Heyward in particular has been playing at a high level recently, and seems to be emerging as one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league at the moment. He leads the Steelers with 6.5 sacks, and has batted down a handful of passes at the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Tuitt is just scratching the surface of his potential and starting to make plays simply through his athleticism as he continues to learn the intricacies of both the defensive system and of the level of professionalism and quality of opponents at this level.
Heyward has been a good role model for the young rookie, a player whose game he can emulate. They already have many similarities to their game. The pairing will only continue to grow through the remainder of this season and into next year.