Lost in the euphoria over the epic Ben Roethlisberger-led comeback win over the Jaguars on Sunday was a subtle, yet crucial, defensive contribution by the stalwart of this Steelers defense — Cam Heyward.
Trailing 16-6 early in the fourth quarter, things looked bleak. A Steelers drive had ended in a sack of Roethlisberger at the Pittsburgh 10 yard line. Jordan Berry’s pedestrian punt was returned by Dede Westbrook to the Steelers’ 41, setting the Jags up with tremendous field position. Jacksonville didn’t even need a first down to get into field goal range. Seven or eight yards would do the trick. With the Steelers already two scores down, Jacksonville getting points in this situation, or even a drive which ate up clock, would likely be fatal. The Steelers needed a decisive three and out in the worst of ways.
Enter Mr. Heyward.
Three plays later, Jacksonville had lost fourteen yards and burned less than two minutes of game time. The Steelers still had life, enough to let Roethlisberger work his Hall of Fame magic, as it turned out. Without Heyward’s dominant three plays on that Jacksonville series, however, he may never have had the chance.
Here’s how Heyward overwhelmed the Jags when the Steelers needed it most.
Jacksonville 1st and 10, +41 yard line, 12:43 to play
The Jags come out in 22 personnel with two tight ends and a fullback in front of I-back Leonard Fournette. It’s a power run set and the Steelers respond by stacking the box. They play a 5-3 look with both outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage (Anthony Chickillo playing to the tight end-wing side, TJ Watt backside as a 5-tech). They employ three safeties - Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds and Jordan Dangerfield - and only one corner. Edmunds lines up as the eighth player in the box, rolled up in the C-gap to the TE-Wing.
Jacksonville runs a zone-lead concept to the open end, with fullback Tommy Bohanon targeting Vince Williams. Tyson Alualu, the 3-tech to that side, holds his ground against guard Chris Reed while Williams and Bohanon meet in the hole like a pair of angry rams. There is no place to run on the front side of the play.
This is where inside zone can be most effective, however. Because of the full flow of the backs and linemen to the front side, backside defenders often over-react and get washed across the ball, opening up a cut back lane on the back side of the play. Fournette had done much of his damage in the first half taking inside zone to the back side A-gap for chunk runs of 11, 12 and 20 yards. Now, with Alualu and Williams closing off the front side, he looks to do the same.
Heyward, as the backside 3-tech, has other ideas. He gets off the ball fast, wins the battle of the hands at the line of scrimmage by getting into the chest of tackle Ereck Flowers before Flowers can strike, and drives Flowers into the A-gap. Flowers can neither turn nor wash Heyward, leaving Fournette no choice but to take the ball back a second gap, where Chickillo comes unblocked from the edge to make the tackle for a two yard gain.
By closing off the backside A-gap, Heyward took away Fournette’s preferred option and allowed Chickillo to make the play. Otherwise, Fournette would have banged the ball inside for another chunk run. The Jags would have been looking at something like 2nd and 3 from the +34. In this situation, 2nd and 8 was ideal by comparison.
2nd and 8, +39, 11:57 to play
The Jags swap out of 22 personnel to a 12 look, substituting a second wide receiver for Bohanon. The Steelers counter by going 2-4-5, inserting Coty Sensebaugh for Alualu. Jacksonville gets into a run-heavy formation again, with both tight ends lined up to the left in a TE-Wing structure and wide receiver Westbrook flexed just two yards wide of the wing. Westbrook gives the Jags a five-man blocking surface to the left side of the formation with just a guard and tackle on the right side. It certainly feels like a run to the left, or maybe a counter right if the Steelers over-adjust to the strength.
It is neither. Like they did so effectively in their playoff win over the Steelers last January, Jacksonville opts for a timely play-action pass. Here, they fake to Carlos Hyde while keeping both tight ends in to max protect with eight blockers. It is a two-man route, with quarterback Blake Bortles having the option to choose either of his wide receivers matched up in man coverage against Sensebaugh and Joe Haden.
After faking the run, Bortles hitches up and immediately looks to his right, where DJ Chark is running a slant against Sensebaugh. It looks like Bortles has a window to Chark out of the receiver’s break. Sensebaugh is just beginning to drive on the receiver and Edmunds, the linebacker to that side, has come forward on the play fake. A more decisive quarterback would have seen the window and immediately released the ball, trusting himself to fit it in before Sensebaugh closed.
Thankfully, Blake Bortles is not that quarterback. Instead, he pulls the ball down and looks to his left, where Westbrook is running a take-off against Haden.
Enter, once again, Mr. Heyward.
As Bortles looks for Westbrook, he is forced to step back and away from the collapsing pocket. Why is the pocket collapsing? Because Heyward, using a straight bull rush with his hands underneath Flowers’ pads, has driven the 6’6-335 pound tackle six yards into the backfield.
Bortles is forced to move to his right, which deposits him squarely into the arms of Vince Williams, who has beaten Reed, the right tackle, with a nice rip move to the inside. Williams gets credit for the sack but it is Heyward pummeling Flowers that makes it impossible for Bortles to throw to Westbrook and flushes him into Williams.
Heyward doesn’t make the tackle on first down or the sack on second. But he is the biggest reason it’s now 3rd and 17.
3rd and 17, +48, 11:09 to play
After calling timeout just before the ball is snapped on a play where it looks like Jacksonville is going to concede the drive and run the ball, the Jags come out in 11 personnel and spread the field. The Steelers stay in their 2-4-5 look. On the television broadcast, Tony Romo says, “This is just going to be a run.”
Maybe it should have been. Instead, Bortles drops back to pass. Heyward, lined up on the nose, executes a beautiful arm-over club move where he punches his hands into the chest of center Tyler Shatley, gets Shatley to extend his arms then comes over top and clubs Shatley’s arms away. You could make a drill video of the move to teach pass rush techniques to interior defensive linemen. Bortles has no chance. He is barely at the back of his drop as Heyward beats Shatley clean, swoops in on Bortles and drops him for the sack. There is no assist on this play for Heyward. Instead, he takes care of things on his own.
The aftermath, as they say, is history. Jacksonville punts, the Steelers still have life and Ben does Ben things. Without Heyward’s efforts, however, at a time when a successful Jacksonville drive would have likely ended the game, the narrative would be completely different. We’d be talking about trap games, or about how the Jags have our number, or about “road” Ben. Someone would say something about how Tomlin should be fired. Or about how Butler can’t stop the run. Chaos would ensue.
In big moments, teams need their best players to step up and make plays. Ben Roethelisberger did his part. So did Cam Heyward. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s one of the Steelers’ best players, too.