The Pittsburgh Steelers have been without their defensive captain—one of them, anyway—on the field for the past four weeks, since it was that long since sixth-year defensive end Cameron Heyward was placed on injured reserve. Over the span of the past four games, the Steelers defense has stepped up to the plate and helped the team win four consecutive games in which they have given up, on average, 12.5 points per game.
Aside from the points allowed, the red zone defense has played a critical role. The Steelers have performed well. And they have also kicked up the sacks and turnovers, gaining a handful of interceptions and fumbles over the course of the past month.
After all of this, one might be inclined to question just what sort of impact Heyward has really had on the defensive side of the ball, if they are truly playing their best football of the season since he went down with an injury.
You can argue that the result show he is not as important of a player as was believed—he is frequently cited as the Steelers’ best player on the defensive side of the ball. You can also argue that it reflects how significant his impact is, that his lost has inspired and forced his teammates to step up in his absence and play above and beyond.
What you shouldn’t argue—because none of us have access to the locker room—is that Heyward is not continuing to impact this team in very important ways, even if he is no longer able to be there on the field with his teammates. There is a reason that his teammates voted him as one of their captains, their representatives, and that is because he is a leader. You can still lead from the sidelines.
And he is. That is what Stephon Tuitt, the young third-year defensive end who is still the youngest player along the defensive line, told Mike Prisuta after the game. “He could be sitting at home”, he said, ‘but he’s with us in the cold. He tells us things we need to see”. Basically, what he is saying is that Heyward is another coach, only a coach with the perspective of a player.
Rather than being away from the team during his injury, Heyward was patrolling the sidelines through the snow in Buffalo, often right alongside his head coach, Mike Tomlin, as he was at the end of the game while they were both expressing disbelief over the fact that the Bills used a timeout even though they could not get the ball back while the offense was taking a knee to drain the clock.
It is true that, overall, the Steelers defense has stepped up in Heyward’s absence so far. The primary player that has stepped in his shoes has been rookie Javon Hargrave, but the defense all around has been solidifying. And we should not discount Heyward’s continued impact on the improving defense from the sidelines.