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Cam Heyward still brings the pressure for the Steelers

Despite a decrease in sacks in 2020, the Steelers defensive captain has continued to put pressure on the quarterback.

NFL: DEC 21 Steelers at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in full-out regular-season mode. The preseason is gone and served its purpose as the team has its 53-man roster and 16-man practice squad. Before getting into breaking down an aspect of the previous game each, let’s take a look at the Steelers two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and how, despite in decrease in sacks in 2020, he still continues to put the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

The first thing I need to address is to define the statistic of quarterback pressure. For this exercise, I’m going to use numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus. Simply put, it is combining the number of sacks, quarterback hits, and quarterback hurries into one category of total pressures. It should be noted that both hits and hurries are a subjective decision based on those compiling statistics and can vary from source to source.

If looking at another source, Pro Football Reference, the number of pressures by a player varies greatly as their categories are sacks, quarterback hurries, and quarterback knock downs, although to sum of their three totals often do not match what they define as a “quarterback pressure.”

For the statistics, I’m going to be using the numbers from Pro Football Focus. The main reason is because their statistics go back as far as necessary while Pro Football Reference only goes back through 2018. I should also note that the numbers of sacks by PFF are sometimes off because they do not give credit for a half sack and simply count it as a whole number. Therefore, their total number of sacks by Cameron Heyward in 2020 is five while Pro Football Reference has the number at four because of the two games Heyward had 0.5 sacks in each.

Now that we have things defined, let’s look at the numbers for Cam Heyward over the last four seasons when he really exploded on the scene at a league-wide level. According to PFF, Heyward has had between 59 and 62 total pressures each season over the last four years. This is amazing consistency when looking at this stretch. When it comes to sacks, Heyward had 14 in 2017 followed by 11 in 2018, 10 in 2019, and 5 in 2020. Although Heyward saw his total number of sacks cut in half from the previous season, he actually had more total pressures in 2020 with 62 compared to 60 in 2019. Heyward had 59 pressures in 2018 and 62 in 2017.

In looking at these numbers, Heyward saw an uptick in quarterback hits from 2018 to 2019 where we had nine the two previous seasons and increased to 14 over each of the last two years. The biggest increase came in quarterback hurries were in 2020 Heyward had 43 compared to 36 the previous season.

Another interesting statistic to look at is to put this in the context as to how often a player is rushing the passer. By doing this, I calculated Heyward’s pass rushes per pressure (PRPP) each year of his career. Take note, a lower number is better in this case as it is basically saying how many pass rushes it takes to get one pressure. In 2017, the year Heyward made his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, he had a 7.53 PRPP that season. In 2018 Heyward‘s number jumped up to 9.31 PRPP. Although this number seems significantly higher, it was his second-lowest of his career at the time.

Over the last two seasons, Heyward has continued to do well in his number of pass rushes per pressure. For 2019, Heward saw a number of 8.42 and in 2020 he improved to 8.16 PRPP. So even though Heyward wasn’t getting as many sacks, he was getting pressure more often than the previous two seasons.

Just to put some of these numbers in context, I calculated the PRPP of some other players on the Steelers and around the NFL. It should be noted that Heyward‘s career PRPP is 9.60 for his 10 NFL seasons. Fellow defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt has a career PRPP of 10.01 but had his best season by far in 2020 of 7.35 PRPP on the year. Outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt have vastly different numbers as Dupree checks in at 10.18 PRPP for his career and 9.65 over the last two seasons when he saw his best numbers improvement. T.J. Watt is on a whole other level with 7.09 PRPP through his career.

Checking in with other NFL defensive lineman, Aaron Donald appears to also be from a whole other planet and his PRPP is 6.53 for his career. Other notable players who are on the rise on the defensive line are Chris Jones with 8.27 and Vita Vea at 8.95. Other noteworthy players are Deforest Buckner at 9.96 PRPP and Fletcher Cox with 9.07 for his career.

So after looking at these numbers to put them in context, Cameron Heyward continues to put pressure on the quarterback even if he simply can’t get the sacks based on fighting with his own teammates. Is this really what goes on? Maybe we should check the film.

The Film Line:

In 2017 the Steelers added T.J. Watt and Tyson Alualu to their front line, finishing the group that would be together through the 2020 season, a group that would lead the NFL in sacks for each of those 4 seasons. That first year the Steelers sack leader was Cam Heyward. Let’s take a look at what that Cameron Heyward looked like.

Steelers vs. Titans 2017
Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen.

One of the staples of the early Keith Butler era on defense was the defensive tackles pinning their ears back and just going after the quarterback. This sack was the result of that philosophy. Also notice rookie T.J. Watt using a lot of energy but not having much success. 2017 T.J. Watt was a high motor, high effort, elite athlete with very little polish and he gets to the quarterback in time to help mop up Cameron Heyward’s sack.

Steelers vs. Titans 2017
Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the bottom of the screen.

I love these stunts. Cameron Heyward is going outside to drag the guard and tackle away from the looping Anthony Chickillo. Chickillo doesn’t do much with it, but Cameron Heyward, once the guard switches to block Chickillo, drives the tackle backward, finds the quarterback and makes the sack.

Steelers vs. Packers 2017
Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the top of the screen.

This is the Green Bay Packers trying to block Cameron Heyward with a center. The key here is Heyward has no other goal than to get into the backfield and disrupt whatever the play is. He does a pretty good job of it.

As T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree went from elite athletes to more polished pass rushers, Cameron Heyward’s role changed.

Steelers vs. Browns, 2020 Week 6
Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the left side of the screen.

Now it is T.J. Watt with the permanent green light to just go get the quarterback, Cameron Heyward is playing a very different role. He is rushing, but his first priority is to contain Baker Mayfield, and he does the job, trapping Mayfield in the pocket, leading to a desperate heave that Cameron Sutton came down with. This is a pressure for Cameron Heyward, but not a sack or QB hit, and not because Cameron Heyward regressed as a pass rusher, but because his role changed on the defense. The excellent job he does here led to an interception, but no Defensive Player of the Year hype, and it won’t help his chances of making the Hall of Fame like a sack would, but it helped his team win.

Steelers vs. Lions, 2021 preseason
Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the top of the screen.

This is 2021 Cameron Heyward. He still has his athleticism, he is ridiculously powerful, and on this play, he’s not containing first. This is closer to 2017 Cameron Heyward than 2020 Cameron Heyward.

With Bud Dupree gone, Stephon Tuitt on IR and T.J. Watt having limited practice time with his team mates, some of the sack production may be coming from Cameron Heyward, and the job of containing the quarterback in the pocket may shift to players like Chris Wormley, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram.

The Point:

Cam Heyward is such a high-quality defensive lineman that he can basically take on whatever role is needed to have the team succeed. Whether he is the one who’s tasked with sacking on the quarterback or if he is simply keeping his lane in order to allow others to get the job done, he is going to have success more often than not. If given the task of being the guy to bring the QB down this year, look for Heyward’s sack numbers to increase to what they were in previous years. If not, Heyward should still be able to bring the pressure even if he’s not the one getting the most notable statistic.