2016 South Side Questions: How Will D-Line Fare Without Heyward?

The regular season is here, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the real work is now upon us, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they wade through a regular season in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: How will the Steelers front line fare without Cameron Heyward?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are entering Sunday’s game facing a situation that they have not had to face before since prior to the 2011 season: playing a game without Cameron Heyward. For the past five-plus years—though he has only been a regular starter since 2013—Heyward has been the stalwart centerpiece along the front line, and now they have to figure out, at least for a game or two, who to get things done without him up front.

Of course, having somebody with the talent level of Stephon Tuitt is a great place to start. As far as pure abilities go, Tuitt is in many ways Heyward’s equal, and in some senses perhaps even surpasses him. But there are other aspects often more intangible in nature that he has not had to contend with yet, and it will be incumbent upon him to take on a larger role.

This will also be a big opportunity for rookie defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who is bound to see a good chunk of snaps, given that the Steelers primarily operate out of a 4-2-5 front, in which he would function as a one- or three-tech.

Pittsburgh brought in Ricardo Mathews during free agency because they respect his motor, and he has demonstrated flashes of pass-rush ability, but anybody contending that he does not present a considerable step down from Heyward is lying to themselves, especially when it comes to defending the run.

It does help that their next opponent, the Dolphins, is already experiencing tumult along their offensive line. They just released three linemen from their 53-man roster and practice squad, as a matter of fact, so that will ease the burden for at least one week.

Heyward has in many ways become the heart and soul of the defense over the past few years, which is why he was named captain this season. He brings a lot to the table that doesn’t come up in the stats sheet. Hopefully part of what he brings will include inspiring those who have to fill his shoes to play like he’s still in them.

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