Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers starting defensive end Cameron Heyward suffered a high ankle sprain, and though he has promised to be ready to go for the team’s regular season opener, I voiced my doubts about that and braced for the possibility that the team would have to make do without him for a game or two as he recovered.
It would be the first time in his career, however, that the Steelers would have to make alternative plans, because in five seasons, he has never missed a game. It is simply a situation that they have never had to deal with before, so an alternative has never really been devised.
Their current alternative, however, just hit a sour note after free agent Ricardo Mathews left the game against the Panthers last night, first with a stinger, and then later ultimately to be evaluated with a neck injury.
There was no immediate availability after the game as to the extent of the injury, but it goes without saying that it will be something to monitor over the course of the next week and a half, as the Monday Night opener against Washington looms on the horizon, and the Steelers being down two linemen would be kind of a big deal.
If there are two injuries, then the Steelers would likely carry an extra defensive end—most likely Caushaud Lyons—on the 53-man roster to start the season, though he probably would not play behind L.T. Walton and Javon Hargrave, one of whom would start in Heyward’s place.
Given the sort of player that Heyward is, and the status that he holds in the locker room and on the field among his teammates, serving as the heart of the defense, it would not be an easy thing to play without him, but they did weather two games without Stephon Tuitt last year.
I do think Tuitt is fully capable at this point of bearing the brunt of the load if Heyward misses some time, but the depth would really be in jeopardy if Mathews also missed time. Walton has progressed, but I certainly would not count on him to start a full game.
Hargrave is a rookie, and is at heart an interior player, but he could also play at defensive end, and would likely split time with Walton in the worst-case scenario came about that both Heyward and Mathews would miss the opener.
This is, of course, all very speculative at this point, and there are still 10 days for everything to sort itself out. We know next to nothing about the status of Mathews right now, for starters, though I remain somewhat cynical about Heyward being able to get back in time, or at least to do so and be effective and play a heavy amount of snaps.