Cam Heyward is one of football’s best at batting down a quarterback’s passes. His sixth deflection of the season came Monday night, and he was handsomely rewarded with his second career INT. That play was less of a bat and more of the ball falling right into Heyward’s arms. Speaking with reporters Thursday, Keith Butler explained what makes those players so successful at swatting passes down.
“It’s a feel really as you’re rushing,” Butler told reporters in audio provided by the team. “Sometimes the offensive linemen do what we call short set. When they’re doing quick, rhythm passes and quarterback hits his third step, he’s going to let the ball go.”
A detailed breakdown from Butler, a short set occurring when a linemen isn’t getting any sort of depth and is trying to create a wall at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes that’s done strategically based on the rusher, sometimes it’s a linemen switching things up to keep the defender guessing, and sometimes it’s based on the play call. If the ball is designed to get out quick, the blocks won’t have to be held as long, allowing those guys to play more aggressive. And ideally, engaging in the rush early will help reduce the pass rusher’s vision and not allow him to get his hands up. But smart players know that’s a sign the ball is coming out quick.
Heyward’s interception Monday was less of that variety. He appeared to have a good sight-line on Justin Fields, reading his shoulder and arm and timing his jump well, the ball basically falling into his arms. It was the second pick of his career, both coming in Monday night games, and he’s believed to be the first Steelers’ defensive linemen to ever have interceptions in consecutive years.
It helps that Heyward has played the game for a decade and seen it all, picking up on nuances and subtle tells from the O-line. That “feel” Butler refers to only comes with experience and study.
“It’s a feel for the game really more than anything else. You start to rush, you feel like the tackle or the guard is not really getting off the line. They’re just tying to set at the line of scrimmage. And then you feel the three-step drop by the quarterback. That’s when they know to get their hands up.”
Since 2017, Heyward has 21 pass deflections. That’s fourth in the league among defensive linemen only trailing Carlos Dunlap (31), Cameron Jordan (25), and Shelby Harris (23). The six he has this season are one shy of his career high. As we showed in a video on weeks ago, Heyward impacts the game in seemingly every way. Stopping the run, rushing the passer, batting down throws, and playing with A+ effort. It’s why he is one of the best defenders in football and having a career-year.