Jeremy Fowler of ESPN recently gave his rankings for the top 10 interior offensive lineman in the NFL. He teased the article on Twitter with a quote he used in the story from an unnamed defensive assistant coach.
Man I’m not with that. So because I had a good game it devalues a great talent. Dude is heck of a talent. How about I’m a great player myself and we won the game simple as that. I know Q is a dog and I know it’s a 5 star match up when we line up.— Cam Heyward (@CamHeyward) July 12, 2020
As you can see, Cameron Heyward responded. Heyward is right, Quenton Nelson is a great lineman, Heyward is a great lineman, and it was a big match-up.
But it is also true that Cameron Heyward got the better of the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL on a lot of plays in Week 9.
I read that tweet and immediately decided to set aside the filmroom I was working on for this week and dive into this match-up.
The first quarter established a few things. The Colts were intending to ride their great offensive line, using the run game to keep the Steelers pass rush and turnover happy secondary as uninvolved as possible.
While the opening quarter didn’t have a lot of sparks between Cameron Heyward and Quenton Nelson, it quickly became apparent the 5-star matchup between those two would be a major factor in the result of the game.
2nd quarter, 12:46. Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the left.
This might have been Nelson’s biggest loss of the day. Heyward uses stutter steps to get Nelson thinking laterally, then drives him straight back into Jacoby Brissett. Brissett would be injured on the play and miss the rest of the game.
2nd quarter, 0:47. Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen.
This play is a credit to Quenton Nelson. At this point of the game Cameron Heyward is beating him on most plays, and has him beat on this play. As Nelson is falling to the ground he is able to force Heyward around the center, buying his quarterback enough time to complete this touchdown pass.
3rd quarter, 14:21. Cameron Heyward is right in front of the Steeler logo
This is my favorite play of Cameron Heyward’s day. He throws Quenton Nelson behind him, and gets in on the tackle. But this play is more than the tackle. This play shows more than just physical dominance over one of the best lineman in the NFL, it shows how Cameron Heyward makes this defense better beyond his individual stats.
Watch the key section of this play.
Once Heyward throws Nelson he stays in his gap, keeping his run responsibility. He sticks his left hip into Nelson and keeps his left hand on the outside of Nelson, boxing him out. With his right arm he helps Bud Dupree keep his assignment, and you can see the run lane closing because of it. Heyward then disengages and helps secure the tackle.
This is Cameron Heyward, physical dominance with an incredibly high level of awareness and execution.
Quenton Nelson was having a bad day, but when Cameon Heyward took a breather, he suddenly looked like an all-world guard again.
3rd quarter, 12:40. Quenton Nelson is the guard to the left of the center.
That’s what people are used to seeing from Quenton Nelson, squaring up the block on Isaiah Buggs so his tackle can reach him, then quickly sealing both Buggs and Mark Barron out of the play. Fortunately Anthony Chickillo didn’t fall for Ebron’s route and was able to trip up the runner.
3rd quarter 5:00. Cameron Heyward is on the line, right next to the hash mark to the right of the screen.
This is Nelson’s best pass protection rep against Heyward from this game. This play would be pretty routine for Nelson in most games, but against Heyward there weren’t many.
3rd quarter, 2:48. Cameron Heyward is on the line, standing at the right hash mark.
This play shows one of Cameron Heyward’s most dangerous moves. This stunt with Vince Williams works because of the timing and force of Heyward’s swim to the inside. The center cannot switch to Vince Williams here, so he makes the right choice and leaves Vince Williams running free to the quarterback. Meanwhile Quenton Nelson does a good job stopping Heyward from splitting the two lineman. Both Nelson and center Ryan Kelly are really good lineman, and both of them make the right decision here, and it still leaves the quarterback with Vince Williams in his face as he makes the throw.
That’s how good Cameron Heyward is.
4th quarter, 13:33. Cameron Heyward is on the line, to the left of the screen in a 3-point stance.
On this play Heyward is noticeably reading the quarterback’s eyes, keeping his escape lanes closed and looking to disrupt the pass. Heyward doesn’t just go for sacks on every play. Keith Butler’s pass rush schemes involve containment responsibilities like Heyward shows here.
4th quarter, 11:21. Cameron Heyward is on the line, inside the right hash mark.
Here’s another win for Quenton Nelson. This was the Colts’ touchdown drive which put them up by 1 point. Quenton Nelson showed up big on this drive, and his team was able to move the ball down the field because of it.
4th quarter, 6:36. Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the left side of the screen.
Here is another great play by Cameron Heyward. Quenton Nelson is trying to block Heyward, then pass him off to the center and go find another defender. Heyward’s lateral mobility and strength change that plan as he is able to stay in front of the center and drive Nelson back two yards to flatten the angle of the run. If Nelson wins this block, the running back is heading up field with Quenton Nelson blocking Steven Nelson (no relation) and a lot of open grass. Anthony Chickillo gets sealed inside and the Colts get bodies on Mark Barron and Terrell Edmunds. Cameron Heyward made this play. He won his assignment enough to turn what would have been a great chance at a very big play into a 3 yard gain. The Colts would punt on this drive.
4th quarter 1:20. Cameron Heyward is on the line, farthest to the right side of the screen.
It was 3rd & 1 on the last Colts drive of the game. The Colts come out with 6 lineman and 2 tight ends. The Steelers counter with one of my favorite defensive alignments they use. They send numbers to the strong side of the formation, including T.J. Watt, while the line shifts to the weak side, making Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree the edge defenders.
The play is smart because Heyward and Dupree are both incredibly good at sealing the edge, while T.J. Watt, one of the best pass rushers in the world, is not on the same level in run defense.
The Colts were forced to try their field goal from here, and missed it.
In a 2-point Steeler win that came down to the last drive, Cameron Heyward’s victories over Quinten Nelson were major factors in the result. The Steelers captain took the responsibility on himself to be the difference and he succeeded. Or as Cameron Heyward said:
“How about I’m a great player myself and we won the game, simple as that.”
Sometimes, it really is that simple.