As the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive captain, defensive end Cameron Heyward perhaps took Sunday’s loss the hardest. He knows that it was primarily on the shoulders of his own unit that the loss fell, giving up 38 points, even if some were aided by the offense and special teams.
In pretty much all of their rare losses this season, Heyward understands that the defense faltered. Much of it came in struggles on the ground. “I know we only lost four games through the entire year, but in those four games there was a habit of not stopping the run, and it’s unacceptable”, he told reporters.
He spoke at length, in fact, and went into detail about some of the issues that the defense is facing. In his mind, it’s not about the coaches. It’s not about the scheme. It’s not about the talent, either. It’s simply about the talent executing the schemes of the coaches appropriately, which they have failed to do.
“Coaches can only do so much. If players don’t execute, then it looks poorly on them? That doesn’t add up to me. There’s a discord there between the player and the player executing. I think the coaches did an amazing job preparing us”, he said in the aftermath of the game.
Heyward said that he believes the team “had a great game plan” heading into Sunday, but it fell through because of the execution of the plan. “When you don’t execute on your assignments”, he said, “it doesn’t matter what you play”.
One thing that he has stressed repeatedly is defensive cohesiveness and trust, and that was his main theme here. “In our defense, it relies on a lot of trust and guys being in their gaps”, he said. “When guys aren’t sound we put our team at a disadvantage”. He went on:
Instead of being in your gap you think you can go make a play. And sometimes guys try to make too many plays. It sucks sometimes because I know these guys can make the plays. We have to execute as a defense. That happens in this game. It comes with younger guys. We have to learn from that. We have to be a complete unit that understands it’s one agenda. Everyone has to be accountable for their gaps. Everyone has to be accountable for run and pass. I look forward to righting that wrong. I know we can’t do it this instant. But we have a whole offseason to think about it.
It’s hard to have a great deal of confidence in a problem being fixed that was identified early on and yet remained an issue until the bitter end, costing the season. Heyward is more confident than most that it is a players problem more so than a coaching or schematic problem. Time will tell, I suppose.
Much of the defense is young, of course. T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton were rookie or first-year players. Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave were in their second season. Bud Dupree in his third. Even Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier were only in their fourth year. And Joe Haden was a late-August addition despite otherwise being a veteran. There is unquestionably time yet for this unit.