Cameron Heyward was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 31st pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and played 4 seasons in Dick LeBeau’s defense. His last season with Dick LeBeau Heyward led the Steelers in sacks. In 2015 LeBeau was out, Keith Butler was in and the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree. Since that 2015 season, when the scheme was changed to let the defensive lineman attack more and 2-gap significantly less, the Steelers are #1 in the NFL in sacks, the only team to average 3+ sacks a game for the last 6 seasons.
In 2018 the Steelers swapped Bud Dupree to the right side of the defense, playing him next to Cameron Heyward. The results have been continued dominance in pass rush, but most of that has come from other places, especially the other side of the line, where Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt combined for 26 sacks this past season.
The combination of Heyward and Dupree is a special one, and they carry a lot of weight in the Steelers defense, often dominating without putting up a lot of stats. Let’s look at one of the games they put up more stats, in week 6 when they dominated the Cleveland Browns, and see what that pair has brought to the Steelers defense these last three years.
Stuffing the run
If you’ve been watching my film rooms or listening to the podcast I am on with Michael Beck you probably know that I am a huge fan of Bud Dupree, especially his run defense film. If you want some highlights from 2019, check out the film room below. It’s fun.
This game didn’t have a lot of those highlights from Dupree, and we’ll get into that later, but there was plenty from Cameron Heyward to look at.
1st quarter, 8:58. Cameron Heyward (#97) is second from the right side of the screen on the line of scrimmage
Cameron Heyward is powerful, smart and incredibly sound in his technique, here he gets his hands in the chest of the tackle, keeping him from getting in front of Heyward, and Heyward drives him backwards while catching the run play from behind and making the tackle. If you watch the play side, the Browns are winning this play, and the running back has a crack and could break free if it isn’t for Heyward.
3rd quarter, 7:05. Cameron Heyward is lined up over the Center, Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.
This play is set up for the Blitz from Mike Hilton. The big gap between Heyward and Dupree has the lineman in that gap thinking second level blocks, and Hilton slips through, but fails to make the tackle. Fortunately, even while getting driven to the left Cameron Heyward clogs up the play to that side, forcing a cutback into open space where Dupree is able to run down the back.
The offense won a lot of this play. Heyward is driven to the outside, Hilton misses the tackle, and for a second it looks like Kareem Hunt has only Steven Nelson between him and a big gain. Heyward’s intelligence and understanding of flow is big here, blocking up any run to the to the offensive right, and Dupree’s athleticism ends the play with only 1 yard gained.
3rd quarter, 14:56. Cameron Heyward is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.
This is a 4-3 look from the Steelers. The Steelers counter the two tight ends to the strong side by swapping Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt, putting Watt into an off the ball linebacker-esque role. Heyward destroys the tight end, sealing the edge from any outside runs and making the tackle when Hunt cuts his way. Formations like this stress the defense because the Browns have numbers to the strong side and that makes weak side runs dangerous if the Steelers match those numbers. Instead the Steelers swap Heyward over the tight ends, using his power to negate the numbers advantage and that gives the Steelers numbers and speed to the weak side even if they are short on power to that side.
It’s a really nice adjustment.
4th quarter, 6:58, Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the right side of the screen, lined up across from #74.
The Steelers are in dime on this play, but it’s a 3-2 dime, with Vince Williams lining up where a defensive tackle normally would.
The Browns respond with a run, but Cameron Heyward absolutely destroys it. In the Vertex about Stephon Tuitt from earlier this week I showed Tuitt’s power on his bull rush, how he drives blockers back with big initial contact. Here you can see the difference with Heyward. Heyward walks his blocker backwards with his head up, Heyward was a very good 2-gapping lineman, he’s even better when he’s free to attack, but you can see that 2-gapping skill here. Cameron Heyward can do pretty much anything on the defensive line at a high level.
3rd quarter, 5:59. Cameron Heyward is the edge defender to the left side of the screen.
First off, this play is slowed down a good bit., I want you to see just how dominant the Steelers were on this 4th and 1 run. Start with Cameron Heyward, he is double teamed by two tight ends (the line in unbalanced, three OL to the right side of the screen, 1 and 2 TEs to the left). Heyward not only drives the double team backwards, he throws the outside tight end to the ground while doing it. You cannot block Cameron Heyward with tight ends. Stephon Tuitt does a great job of driving forward under his own double team, and that, along with Tyson Alualu keep T.J. Watt clean, and he drives the back straight to Heyward. For his part Bud Dupree destroys any cutback, making sure he got his right arm outside the tackle’s arm so he could control the backside of the play while driving his blocker into the cutback lane.
One thing you probably noticed is that three of the five run defense clips involve Cameron Heyward on the opposite side of the line from Bud Dupree, and not a single run trying to attack Bud Dupree’s side of the field. That’s because teams didn’t run to that side in 2020. After a 2019 season full of run defense highlights from Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward, the Steelers faced the fewest runs to the offense’s left side of any team in the NFL through the first 11 games, and in this game the Browns ran two of their 17 runs to the left before the game turned to 38-7 and the Steelers started playing subs. That was it.
After Bud Dupree was injured in week 12, the Steelers went from the fewest runs to his side of the field to the 7th most. Teams avoided running at Bud Dupree, enough that the Steelers started moving Cameron Heyward to the opposite side to get more out of his run defense.
In the Wild Card game, the Browns ran 20 of their 31 rushes to their left, from 11.7% with Dupree playing to 64.5% without him. It is important to note that Chris Hubbard was filling in for Wyatt Teller in week 6, but on the right side. The Browns didn’t have their best run blocker on the right side and still ran that way rather than run at Bud Dupree.
So while Dupree doesn’t have the run defense highlights he had in previous seasons this year, it was because teams had learned their lesson, and they just stopped running at him.
The Steelers pass rush is heavily skewed to Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt in sacks and pressures, and that shows up on film, but with good reason. Watt and Tuitt are the more explosive rushers, but Heyward and Dupree have their own value, and fit really well in Keith Butler’s scheme in any number of different roles.
1st quarter, 8:12. Mike Hilton is in motion to the bottom of the screen to start the play.
This is week 6, both Mike HIlton and Devin Bush leave this game with injuries. But before that happened, the defense was really coming into its own. The Browns use motion to get Mike Hilton one on one with Odell Beckham Jr., but at no point in his route is Bekham Jr. open. Hilton shuts him down. Needed to show that before looking at the rest of the play.
Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen, Bud Dupree is the edge rusher outside him.
Devin Bush does a great job occupying the running back and spying the quarterback at the same time here, and because of that, Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward both have 1v1 matchups. Dupree gets the sack on this play when Mayfield sees Bush guarding his escape route and hesitates. But watch Heyward. As soon as Heyward sees Dupree making progress he stops and cuts inside, rushing with contain. That’s key to Keith Butler’s defense, especially when the other side of the line is attacking with near-reckless abandon.
2nd quarter, 7:50. Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen, Bud Dupree is the edge rusher outside him.
This play shows really well the value of Dupree and Heyward’s focus on containing the quarterback. You can see both Heyward and Dupree pass up chances to chase the sack in order to to keep Baker Mayfield trapped in the pocket, and it ends with an interception. Contrast their play to T.J. Watt crashing the pocket and going all out to get to the quarterback.
I’ve said it before, Dupree isn’t rushing the same way Watt is, and the Steelers are smart to do it that way. Send Dupree at the quarterback all game and you aren’t getting the impact Watt gives you doing the same thing. The same applies to letting Stephon Tuitt just wreck plays, the team gets a lot out of it. But we also need to recognize the value Heyward and Dupree give by making sure the quarterback can’t escape from the pass rush.
2nd quarter, 0:15. Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen, Bud Dupree is the edge rusher outside him.
You aren’t getting through a Heyward/Dupree post without a stunt. The Steelers run this both ways, with Heyward setting up Dupree and Dupree setting up Heyward. This time it is Heyward setting up Dupree, and few players lock up blockers like Cameron Heyward does, drawing, forcing and keeping double teams to free up team mates. Again, he was a darn good two-gapping DL.
Butler paired that inside stunt for Dupree with T.J. Watt setting up Tuitt to go outside of him. Look at the hit Watt puts on the guard, and the tackle pinches inside before he sees what is happening. By the time he recovers Tuitt is right on him and the outside wall of the pocket is where the guard lined up. That’s a bad spot to be in with Dupree crashing into your pocket. It’s 4th down, and Baker Mayfield doesn’t give up on plays, so we get the addition of a monster hit from Cameron Heyward. I could watch that all day.
3rd quarter, 14:17. Bud Dupree is the edge defender to the right side of the screen.
Of course I’m also not going to have a film room covering Bud Dupree that doesn’t involve a play where the opposing team tries to deal with Bud Dupree by pulling a guard, or in this case sending a tight end from the opposite side.
It never goes well, but everyone thinks their version will work, and it’s just an easy sack for Dupree. He’s too quick off the line and too fast for this nonsense to succeed.
Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward have both been far more valuable than their stats say since each joined the team, but they really blossomed together, and in 2019 and 2020 absolutely destroyed teams that tried to run their way, while locking quarterbacks into the pocket for the other pass rushers to finish off. Cameron Heyward will continue to be incredibly valuable no matter who is next to him, but the Steelers have had a special pairing on the right side for three years now, and it is something I hope Steeler fans can appreciate if it is over.
And if you held questions about just how good these two were together, just ask the Cleveland Browns, they know.