The Pittsburgh Steelers are facing no easy task for the remainder of the season in trying to find their way defensively without Cameron Heyward, their captain and the nucleus of the unit. The veteran defensive end had already missed two games earlier in the season, and the run defense was shredded.
Pittsburgh was thrown a softball in facing the Browns as their first opponent since Heyward was placed on injured reserve. Nevertheless, the Steelers’ reserve lineman should be given their due for the snaps that they were asked to take, and the plays that they made.
Aside from rookie Javon Hargrave, who played the majority of the game, Daniel McCullers, Ricardo Mathews, and L.T. Walton all saw a healthy number of snaps, and they all had some level of impact. Mathews’ came on the first play of the game.
Technically netting the start in a 3-4 front, the Steelers ran an imbalanced line with the right defensive end position playing to the left of the nose tackle over center. With Mathews in the right-side B Gap, the Browns line shifted right, and the defensive end was able to leverage around the right guard’s left shoulder, able to penetrate and make the tackle for a loss of two yards.
Later, early in the third quarter, the Browns were able to set themselves up with first and goal down to the one-yard line after hitting on a big passing play. The Steelers shifted to their rare goal line package with four down linemen, McCullers over the center. The right guard tried to reach block him, but McCullers cast him aside and dropped the back for a loss of two.
Late in the game, the Steelers, set with a comfortable lead, trotted out McCullers and Walton as their two down linemen. On one passing play, McCullers looped around the center and was able to get his big mitt in the passing lane, batting the pass. He later, however, drew a roughing the passer penalty as well.
Later on that drive, Pittsburgh showed a look they haven’t shown often this year, with the two linemen to one side and the outside linebacker both on the other. On this occasion, Mathews lined up outside the right tackle and was able to work him up the arc before cutting back inside, pressuring the quarterback to throw the ball away.
Finally, on the third-to-last play of the game, Walton got involved, the Steelers showing the same look as the previous play and him in Mathews’ role. On this occasion, pressure from the opposite side flushed the quarterback in Walton’s direction, but he did well to scrape off the lineman late and get a clean hit just after the ball was thrown.
While Hargrave is going to be the focal point, the Steelers are going to need more contributions like these and then some from their defensive line depth in order to compensate for the loss of their best defensive player.