As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Our X Factor for Sunday night’s Wildcard game against the Cleveland Browns.
X Factor: Cam Heyward
Run defense is an 11 man job. Not a one man job, not a position group job. But if I’m Mike Tomlin, right before the Steelers run out of the tunnel Sunday night, I’m grabbing Cam Heyward and telling him one thing.
This is your game.
Because it is. This is his chance to take over a game. That’s not new to Heyward. He’s taken over several games before, often against AFC North opponents. There are Bengals’ guards who still wake up in a cold sweat about facing him.
Tomorrow night is another chance. No one has a better matchup in this game, on either side of the football, than Heyward. He’s slated to face Michael Dunn at left guard. A man with a grand total of one career offensive snap. He’s the Browns’ third choice. Starter Joel Bitonio, who hasn’t missed a game since 2015, is out because of COVID. Backup Nick Harris landed on IR due to a knee injury. Dunn, ready or not, is their guy. Pittsburgh knows well what it’s like when you’re down to your third string guard, fans (me included) covering their eyes when JC Hassenauer was pressed into action earlier in the year.
Dunn isn’t the same undersized player Hassenauer is. At 6’5, 300 pounds, he’s well put together. But this is a matchup entirely in Heyward’s favor. Heyward had the benefit of getting Week 17 off, ensuring he was fully rested for his first playoff game since 2017. There’s every reason to ask and expect him to be a one-man wrecking crew. Heyward has the best bull rush in football, Eeven better than Aaron Donald’s. Dunn should be walked into Baker Mayfield’s lap over and over and over. Flush Mayfield out of the pocket and into TJ Watt’s waiting arms.
The Steelers have done a great job getting pressure against the Browns, sacking Mayfield eight times in two games this year. He was sacked just 18 times in his other 14 starts. Now that the Browns are down one of their best linemen, that pressure has to increase.
It’s not just about getting the job done as a pass rusher. The Browns’ offense runs through Nick Chubb and that running game. Pittsburgh’s run defense has degraded throughout the year. For the first half of the season, they were an elite unit. Different story since then. Stats tell the story.
Yards Per Carry Allowed
First Six Games: 3.4 YPC (2nd)
Last Ten Games: 4.7 YPC (25th)
Over a full yard higher the last ten games than the first six. That’s a result of body blow after body blow, losing Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, and a revolving door at ILB. Things have to be better tomorrow night. Can’t let Chubb control the clock and the game. Stopping him isn’t just a Cam Heyward job, again, it falls on everyone, but Heyward can have a significant impact by basically shutting down runs through his gap.
The Steelers have worked Heyward like crazy this year. He’s one of only a couple of 300+ pounders able to play 80% of snaps and not suffer obvious consequences. His play early is the same as it is late. He’s a tremendous athlete with a non-stop motor, chasing the ball sideline to sideline every single snap. He’s one of the best at his position, one of the game’s best defensive plays, and needs to play every bit like it 8:15 tomorrow night.