How many Steelers defenders have either been hurt or traded for lack of playing time so far in 2021?
If you answered, “All of them except Cam Heyward,” you would be correct.
That’s right, just five years after Heyward, the Steelers’ star defensive lineman and 2011 first-round pick out of The Ohio State, missed the back half of the 2016 regular season and postseason with a torn pectoral muscle, he seems hellbent on paying his defensive brethren back after they had his back.
In case you forgot, the Steelers defense seemed to collectively up its game after the injury to Heyward on November 13, 2016, in a last-second loss to the Cowboys at Heinz Field. Keith Butler’s unit became more opportunistic in Heyward’s absence. It also got after the quarterback at a rate that hadn't been seen in years.
Pittsburgh was 4-5 after the loss to Dallas and after the loss of its team leader, but it never lost again until the AFC title game against those New England Patriots. What happened in that game? Hey, a defense can only do so much without its star defensive lineman and team leader, especially when facing Tom Brady. Would Heyward’s presence have made a difference?
We’ll never know, but to reiterate, it’s like No. 97 never forgot the effort his teammates displayed without him five years ago because it’s almost as if he’s taken the entire defense and put it on his broad shoulders in 2021.
And the timing couldn’t have been better. We’re talking about a defensive unit that relies so heavily on Pro Bowlers like T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately, Watt has been hurt multiple times, while Fitzpatrick hasn’t been the difference-maker at free safety that he was in 2019 and 2020 (and he missed this past Sunday night’s game against the Chargers in Los Angeles with Covid). Also, I’m sure Heyward was expecting to play alongside Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu on the defensive line this year, but he only played with Alualu a little and hasn’t enjoyed the presence of Tuitt for a single second.
Throw in injuries to Joe Haden and Alex Highsmith, along with the ongoing struggles of Devin Bush, who is returning from an ACL tear suffered in October of 2020, and Heyward has been forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting this year.
And he has. It’s amazing. The man just dominates the line of scrimmage each and every week. It doesn’t matter if Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis or Isaiahh Loudermilk is playing next to him on the defensive line. It doesn’t matter if Taco Charlton is taking Watt’s place at outside linebacker. Heyward just keeps dominating.
It’s a testament to Heyward’s greatness. Maybe the silver lining with all the injuries on defense in 2021 is that it’s shined a brighter light on Heyward and the kind of player he is and really has always been.
It’s not easy coming along in a decade after a Super Bowl run. It’s hard to live up to those legendary defenses that Dick LeBeau helped to build in the years before Heyward’s arrival. Sadly, that unit began to crumble just when he came on the scene. Nothing to do with him, of course, but it was still a tough legacy to live up to.
I believe the groundswell for recognizing Heyward’s true greatness began two years ago when ESPN’s Booger McFarland suggested he was a bona fide Hall of Fame player. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said the same thing earlier this season.
When discussing the best defensive linemen in the NFL, today, Heyward’s team is often mentioned shortly after Aaron Donald’s.
At 32 years old, an age when most players begin to slow down, Heyward appears to be at the height of his powers.
Cam Heyward is a great player, a team leader, a great citizen and an all-time great Pittsburgh Steeler.
I think most people have known those first three things for a while, but it’s nice to see that many more are becoming more aware of that fourth thing.