While the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly seemed to pass the first test of life without Stephon Tuitt in 2019, they still have nine more games to go to close out this schedule. The sixth-year veteran defensive lineman was off to the best start of his career before suffering a pectoral tear that ended his season prematurely, and the defense is still in the process of figuring out how to adjust.
One of the first packages that they implemented, unveiled on Monday night against the Miami Dolphins, was a 1-5-5 defense that featured only Cameron Heyward as the sole true defensive lineman on the field. He ended up logging over 50 snaps, north of 80 percent of the defensive total, a number the team had been trying to cut down. Yet the two-time Pro Bowler isn’t concerned with that.
“I came off for a little bit”, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in dismissing concerns about his durability and endurance under increased snaps. “I’m not worried about that. If we can get short fields and get off early on drives, that’s a plus. Even though they scored early on, it was short drives. It wasn’t like we were out there on long drives”.
To that end, the Steelers have been trending in a positive direction in that regard. The Dolphins, for example, only recorded two of 12 possessions that spanned beyond three minutes in length, and one of those drives went over that by just six seconds. They also had five drives, excluding the end of the first half, that lasted under two minutes in length. Only four possessions lasted more than five plays, and they only scored on one of them.
Still, head coach Mike Tomlin did say that it wasn’t necessarily going to continue to be the case that Heyward would be asked to bear so much of the load as he did. There is still meat on the bone for Tyson Alualu and Javon Hargrave to see more action, and they are still getting Isaiah Buggs and L.T. Walton acclimated to being eligible for snaps.
That will evolve over the course of the season, particularly in the case of Buggs, who is a rookie who had never even dressed for a game prior to Monday night. As for Walton, he had been a free agent until they signed him off the street after Tuitt’s injury, so he could be playing his way into football shape.
Through seven games, Heyward has 34 tackles on the year, including five for a loss, with four and a half sacks, a forced fumble, and two batted passes. Now listed as a defensive tackle for Pro Bowl consideration, he is certainly putting himself in the running to make a third consecutive return trip. And he shouldn’t have any difficulty finding snaps to add to his statistics.