Increasing snap count of Cameron Heyward may jolt sluggish defense to life

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

We saw last year, when the Steelers gave a three-year extension to Steve McLendon after playing him eight snaps a game, what can happen by leaving productive players on the bench. Getting Heyward on the field wouldn't hurt in Week 6.

The math here isn't the issue, although one doesn't need a calculator - just acceptable TV reception - to figure the amount of pressure Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward has been getting this season.

The issue is, we've seen this before.

Steelers defensive tackle Steve McLendon was so productive, he played about eight snaps a game. He was so marginal for the team, he was left unprotected in restricted free agency. He was so far from their future plans, as soon as he made a trip to Green Bay to talk contract, he was given a three-year deal from the Steelers.

Perhaps it's simply a gamble the team was taking that he wouldn't have been offered anything, but he still sat the vast majority of every game, yet, still contributed more per play than any other defender.

Heyward's in the same boat now, it seems. Not quite as severe, but he's playing 15 fewer snaps per game than Ziggy Hood and he has one more quarterback hurry, per Pro Football Focus. He has less than half the amount of snaps as Brett Keisel, yet, has one fewer hurry (seven) than Keisel (eight).

Granted, four games is not a large sample, the Steelers cannot boast the greatest defense in the world for a variety of reasons. Whether the opponent is running the ball or throwing it 20 yards down field, they're giving up big plays and the opposing quarterback is operating with the knowledge the Steelers' defense respects his personal space.

If Heyward is unable to defend the run, then the Steelers don't need just one defensive end, they need three. It's not like this defensive line is dominating up front, and if that's the case, it would seem mitigating the risk of any of them breaking down on any given play would make sense.

And perhaps Heyward's presence would encourage them to become more one-dimensional than they'd otherwise get. If anything, it'd encourage them to run less, which would be a good thing, judging by the dismal run support provided by the inside linebackers so far this season.

The Jets, the Steelers Week 6 opponents, run at a reasonably decent level (123 yards a game) but, heading into Monday night's game, score 17 per contest - just shy of the blistering 17.3 points a game the Steelers are scoring. They lack an identity on offense, which is usually the byproduct of starting a rookie (Geno Smith) at quarterback.

Seems like as good a time as any to challenge a team's defensive line to win the battle up front, and rotating their defensive ends a bit more frequently may be the best way to do that.

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