When you have a defensive line consisting of a pair of star defensive ends like Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, you can’t really afford to have a significant Plan B should one of them go down and you want to maintain the quality of your four-man pass rush.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have made no secret of the fact that the mitigation of Tuitt’s loss to the pass rush, and to the defense as a whole is a process and is one that is going to continue to evolve over the course of the journey.
For the moment, it calls upon Heyward to shoulder a bigger portion of the load, as we saw in the Steelers’ first game since the injury, a win over the Miami Dolphins, in which the ninth-year veteran recorded yet another sack, quickly approaching 50 for his career and becoming the second lineman, officially, in team history to do so.
While that was part of the initial approach—including a 1-5-5 defensive look in which he was the only lineman on the field, paired with Vince Williams, an inside linebacker, as an extra rusher—head coach Mike Tomlin allowed that they could change over time.
When asked if Heyward was going to have to take on a larger percentage of the workload, he said that was “not necessarily so”, adding his hope that “guys evolve”. He would be referring particularly, or even specifically, to rookie Isaiah Buggs, who dressed for the first time on Monday, and L.T. Walton, a veteran who was just recently re-signed but who has four years in the system.
“Maybe that’s just the beginning for a guy like Isaiah Buggs, you know. L.T. Walton we just acquired last week”, Tomlin said. “He got off the couch. Maybe he’s more conditioned to play in a more viable option for us. I think as we go and guys grow and show their capabilities, we’ll adjust accordingly, and it may or may not mean more snaps for Cam Heyward”.
For his part, Heyward has said that an increase in his workload is something he’s not really thinking nor concerned about. His focus instead is on getting the defense on the field, forcing turnovers and three-and-outs and not giving anything to opposing offenses.
The Steelers have a real chance to overcome Tuitt’s loss quite seamlessly this season if they can intelligently and creatively attack the problem. Simply asking Heyward to almost never come off the field is not the approach that will make the difference. But the alternatives are still in the process of revealing themselves, so patience is in order.