Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward has never been shy about criticizing the unit he’s the captain of. Because of that, it didn’t take long for Heyward to name off a few areas he thinks the Steelers 2020 defense needs to improve in during his Thursday Zoom session with the media.
“You know, we weren’t the number one defense,” Heyward said. “We can sit up here and say we want to be this and want to be that, but we weren’t. We led the league in sacks, and I think we led the league in turnovers, but we weren’t off the field enough to give our offense enough opportunities. You can still improve on that.”
That statement might have been Heyward being a little too critical of the 2019 defense because the unit, while not number one overall at the end of the regular season, was particularly good just the same and especially against the pass. Heyward, however, also noted on Thursday that the 2020 defense needs to be better against the run in 2020.
“And I think we’ve got to be a more run stopping defense,” Heyward said. “I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I don’t think we were in the top five at all. So, you know, those are things we can get better at. If we can continue with the turnovers and sacks that would be great. But I think also fourth-quarter scoring. We look at the last couple of games and critical drives, fourth quarter scoring played a big role.”
While the Steelers defense allowed a third-best 3.79 yards per rush last season, the unit also gave up 40 runs of 10 yards or longer, which was just 10th best. One of those allowed happened in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks and to running back Rashaad Penny, specifically. Penny scored a key 37-yard touchdown on that long run of his and the Steelers went on to lose that game.
As for the fourth quarter scoring last season Heyward mentioned, the Steelers defense allowed 90 fourth quarter points in 2019. It’s worth noting, however, that 25 of those point allowed came in the Steelers last three regular season games, which they lost all three of them and two of them by one score.
In 2020, the Steelers return 13 of the 15 defensive players from their 2019 unit that played 250 or more snaps. Additionally, quite a few of their backup defensive players that logged less than 250 snaps last season should be on the final 2020 roster as well.
Perhaps the biggest hole the Steelers defense might have in 2020 is their starting nose tackle position as Javon Hargrave, who has logged the most snaps in the middle of the defense’s 3-4 base front the last few seasons, left this offseason via free agency,
Assuming the Steelers defense can stay relatively healthy throughout the 2020 season, there’s a good chance that Heyward gets his wish and we might even see the unit finish number one overall as well.
Make no mistake, the Steelers defense wasn’t the reason the team failed to make the playoffs last season. In fact, had the 2019 team made the playoffs, a lot of credit would gone to Heyward and company for that achievement.