It’s rather common to refer to the NFL as a ‘what have you done for me lately’ business, and to a large extent that’s true. The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t done much of anything that anybody wants to see lately, resulting in them getting a lot of flak in response, not undeservedly.
Not every play deserves it, however, and one who often seems to get more criticism than his actual play deserves—from some people—is defensive captain Cameron Heyward, who was probably the only defender who actually had a good game last week in what was an otherwise thoroughly dismal performance.
The team’s next opponents certainly don’t take the 33-year-old defensive lineman for granted. Quarterback Tom Brady, facing him for the first time as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was highly complimentary of the All-Pro lineman, calling him “one of the great players I’ve ever played against”, according to the Bucs’ website.
Head coach Todd Bowles was similarly impressed with Heyward’s sustained success in the NFL, coming off of perhaps his best season yet in 2021 with 10 sacks, 89 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception, and nine batted passes.
“Obviously, other than his talent, his thirst for the game” is what most impressed him, he said. “That’s why he’s played so long. He’s a very smart player, he’s a very tough player, he’s a very proud player. You don’t see too many of those guys with that consistency and that production that he’s done over the years. He’s a leader, he’s a captain, he’s well-looked upon by teammates and foes that come in there to play him. He’s a heck of a ballplayer”.
A first-round draft pick out of Ohio State back in 2011, Heyward is the team’s longest-tenured player by a good stretch following the retirement of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Since the 2017 season, he has been on a tear, receiving post-season accolades annually and putting up well over 300 tackles with 59 for loss, 43 sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles, and 24 batted passes.
He did most of that playing alongside Stephon Tuitt, but that hasn’t been the case since 2020. Tuitt missed all of the 2021 season and then announced his retirement in June. The Steelers signed Larry Ogunjobi as a veteran replacement, who has done a mostly solid job.
But the defense as a whole, and the front seven, has just not been clicking consistently, not as a cohesive unit, for most of the year, and it’s been a huge problem. Individual performances are often fine on the whole, but when everything needs to work together at the same time consistently, they have been running into problems.
As a defensive leader, Heyward has been harping on the subject of cohesion all season, and really, for years, but it just hasn’t been happening. It’s been going on so long that it’s hard to tell if it’s more personnel or coaching, but certainly both factor in.