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Cam Heyward’s dominant performance on a big night for the franchise

The Steelers defensive captain and longest-tenured player came through in a big way for a very important win.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling into the final two games. In Week 16, the Steelers defense dominated most of the night and gave their offense the opportunity to pull out the win while only scoring 13 points. Leading the charge for the defense was captain Cam Heyward. Just how dominant was Heyward on Saturday night? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

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:

I’ve heard a narrative this season about the Steelers defensive captain Cam Heyward that I simply don’t understand. Whether it be on social media or even in the BTSC comment section, some believe that Heyward‘s play has fallen off in 2022. While some may believe this, the numbers simply don’t support it.

Through 15 games this season, Cam Heyward has 62 tackles with 12 being for loss along with 18 quarterback hits and 8.5 sacks. Heyward has a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and three passes defensed. Heyward’s 8.5 sacks to date is the fourth-most of any of his NFL seasons with the other three being when he was selected First Team All-Pro. Heyward’s most sacks in a season came in 2017 we had 12.0 and last season he had 10.0. Having 9.0 sacks in his other All-Pro year of 2019, Heyward still has two games to surpass this number.

Even if looking at Pro Football Focus (PFF) scores, whether or not you like them or not, Heyward has a 90.4 on the season in which is fifth most of any defensive lineman only behind Dexter Lawrence, Chris Jones, Quinnen Williams, and Aaron Donald. In fact, Heyward is only 0.1 behind both Donald and Williams and could find his way to the top three by the end of the season.

Looking specifically at the Steelers Week 16 win, it was Heyward’s seven tackles, three of which were for loss, two quarterback hits, one pass defense, and 2.0 sacks which earned him the AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

But even with the stellar numbers, what Cam Heyward did in that game goes beyond what can be measured statistically. I think we better check the film.

The Film Line:

Cameron Heyward is a 8-time Steelers captain, he’s the leader of the defense and one of the key leaders of the entire team. He’s been playing at an incredible level for years now, and in a game with historical value to the franchise, a rivalry game calling back to vicious defensive battles 50 years ago, Cameron Heyward stepped up and played like he belonged on those legendary Steel Curtain defenses.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 1st quarter, 8:58

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive end, second from the right side of the screen.

The Raiders moved smoothly and efficiently down the field on their touchdown drive to open the game. The only negative play on the drive was this one. Cameron Heyward announces his presence by bullying the Raiders guard off his feet, across the pocket and into Derek Carr. Dylan Parham (#66) may be a rookie, but he has started every game this season and hasn’t struggled this bad. And this was just the beginning of a game that PFF rates as his worst game of the season by a good margin.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 1st quarter, 2:53

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive tackle, third from the right side of the screen.

DeMarvin Leal and Cameron Heyward destroy this run play and this 3-yard loss on first down leads to a punt. Watch the fullback, and how Cameron Heyward gets his right arm free from his blocker right as the fullback runs by him. The runner can’t follow his lead blocker because Heyward is in the way, and when he widens the run, DeMarvin Leal has driven the tight end deep enough that the play is dead.

Leal came in motion from the left side to fill this role on this play. It’s strange to see Alex Highsmith playing like an off-ball linebacker against this run play, but it works well.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 1st quarter, 1:34

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive tackle, second from the right side of the screen.

Cameron Heyward attacks the double team, pushes both lineman back to get his hands free and makes the play on the ball. Watch the center when Heyward clears space for him to jump— Heyward moves him backwards with one arm. It’s ridiculous.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 2nd quarter, 11:10

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive end, second from the left side of the screen.

Before we get into Heyward’s total domination of this play, look at what the offense is trying to do. Both guards are pulling to the left, with #66 blocking Alex Highsmith and #64 looking to be a lead blocker and go get Robert Spillane. The Raiders want to give Heyward a first step up field and then have #74 drive him inside and out of the run lane. The Raiders get what they want, Heyward is crashing inside, #74 just has to use his own momentum against him and put him out of the play.

Heyward’s goal, once he sees what is going on, is to reach the pulling guard so Robert Spillane is free to make the tackle. You can see how he moves to get a shoulder into the pulling guard better in slow motion.

That’s a win for Heyward. Nothing else has to happen for Heyward to have won his assignment. But he wasn’t finished at all. Heyward doesn’t just slow down the pulling guard, he drives him backward, disengages his right arm, and gets the running back. That’s not just winning the play, that’s domination.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 7:39

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive end, second from the right side of the screen.

The Steelers are slanting the defensive line to set up for the nickel blitz from Minkah Fitzpatrick. If you remember Mike Hilton running these you can picture the set up, but instead of Terrell Edmunds standing behind Mike Hilton to pick up the slot receiver, it’s Damontae Kazee picking up the receiver while Fitzpatrick blitzes. Fitzpatrick disrupts the timing of the play, and Cameron Heyward finishes. Watch Cameron Heyward’s feet on this play, from the moment he engages the guard his steps and balance are unaffected by the blocker.

Dylan Parham was an all-ACC lineman who didn’t give up a sack in his senior season. Cameron Heyward makes him completely irrelevant on multiple occasions in his 15th start in the NFL.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 3:48

Cameron Heyward (#97) is the defensive end, second from the right side of the screen.

Cameron Heyward blows past the guard, taking a single step with the motion of the play before a swim move puts him in the backfield with the runner. He forces the runner to cut back and gets one hand on the runner and that’s all Heyward needs to make the tackle.

You can see the run is blocked to go outside, but Heyward is able to beat the guard and get into the run lane. He is able to shut down the outside run and force a cut back, and he still finishes the play.

The Point:

Cameron Heyward had a matchup with a rookie lineman and dominated it throughout the game, single-handedly shutting down multiple plays and disrupting the Raiders offense all night. Even at 33 years old, Cam Heyward continues to perform at a high level and was the main piece in another outstanding defensive performance by the Steelers. Although he did not get the deserved recognition for the season by being selected to the Pro Bowl in 2022, Heyward was appropriately named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance on Saturday night. Above it all, Cam Heyward came through big time to help give the Steelers the victory on an emotional night when the night the franchise retired the late Franco Harris’ jersey number.