The Pittsburgh Steelers are winding down 2022 training camp and have completed their first preseason game. With a number of new players finding their way the team, exactly how they fit into the Steelers scheme. One of those players is the versatile sixth-round draft pick Connor Heyward. How does the possible usage of Heyward fit into the Steelers offense? 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:
In his first action of his NFL career, Connor Heyward played 35 of the Steelers 68 snaps on offense according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). When it came to receiving, Heyward was targeted four times where he had two catches for 24 yards. Because two-point conversions don’t count towards statistics other than points, his other catch for two yards only shows up as points and not stats in the box score. Heyward‘s other catches were for 16 yards and for 8 yards and he was credited with 12 yards after the catch according to PFF. Heyward did have one false start penalty in the game which came just before his second reception.
According to PFF, Heyward lined up as an in-line tight end on 26 snaps while lining up in the slot for nine snaps. Heyward’s PFF scores for the game was a 63.6 overall offensive score with a 67.2 on 23 pass plays, a 69.6 on one pass blocking play, and a 62.7 on 11 run blocking plays. Heyward also had a 65.4 special team score which had him sixth out of 35 players on the Steelers. According to PFF, Heyward had six snaps in kick coverage and four in punt coverage. Heyward was credited with two tackles as well as a missed tackle according to PFF.
While the numbers tell some of the story as to Connor Heyward‘s NFL debut, his utilization which doesn’t show up on the stat sheet tells even more. For that, we have to check the film.
The Film Line:
Connor Heyward didn’t just play over half the snaps on offense in his first NFL preseason game, he played in every quarter of the game and caught a pass from all three quarterbacks (although one doesn’t count for statistics). The Steelers used him in important roles and even ran plays for him.
It didn’t take long to see why either. . .
Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 8:53.
The Steelers motioned Heyward to get this matchup between him and the Seahawks young cornerback. Heyward runs a nice route and makes a great catch. It was only his first quarter of NFL football and they are testing him against the opposing team’s cornerbacks. It’s not the only time he would step up when the Steelers challenged him.
In the second quarter with Mason Rudolph playing at quarterback, Cameron Heyward committed a false start penalty. The next play, the Steelers ran a play for him, in a typical move to keep a young player from dwelling too much on a mistake.
Steelers vs. Seahawks, 2nd quarter, 11:06.
Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end, farthest to the right side of the screen on the line.
With jet motion for Heyward, he becomes the receiver after the play-action fake. This play gained 8 yards to turn a Heyward-penalty induced 1st and 15 into 2nd and 7. Again Heyward gets to show off his balance this time, snagging this ball and staying upright and moving at full speed to beat the corner and be able to turn up-field.
Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 6:44.
Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end in motion.
This is the 2-point conversion from Kenny Pickett, hence why it doesn’t show up in the stat sheets. At the game I called this one going to Heyward as he moved in motion because of how wide the linebacker shifted. The Steelers used this formation a decent bit in 2021 for screen passes. The Steelers come out with three tight ends, running back Jaylen Warren and Myles Boykin as their only wide receiver.
They go five-wide out of that personnel and send Heyward in motion toward the other two tight ends. The linebacker is clearly seeing the possibility for a quick screen to Heyward with both Kevin Rader and Jace Sternberger blocking for him. Instead, Heyward bursts into the end zone and turns on a dime for an easy score, securing the catch through a pretty good hit.
The versatility of Heyward makes him a unique threat that defenses not only have to account for, but will often struggle to know what exactly they will be accounting for.
I think the best way to show Connor Heyward’s versatility and value comes in a three-snap stretch from the late first quarter.
Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 2:27.
Connor Heyward is the tight end, farthest to the right side of the screen on the line.
This is the play immediately following the strip sack on Mason Rudolph’s first drive at quarterback. It’s an inside zone run, and Connor Heyward is tasked with sealing a 260 lb. defensive end out of the run lane. He’s not the world’s best blocker, but he does the job here and his man makes no impact on the play.
Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 1:46.
Connor Heyward is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.
The Seahawks were struggling to cover George Pickens, and jamming him at the line had already failed, so this time they move the safety even farther toward George Pickens to give rookie corner Coby Bryant some help. The Steelers counter with Connor Heyward. Heyward uses his speed to run the safety off of Pickens’ route and ensure Mason Rudolph has a 1-on-1 battle on the outside to throw to.
The impressive thing here is Heyward’s speed. It’s one thing to be fast for a tight end, it’s another thing to run step for step with George Pickens as he burns a corner for a deep ball. But that is what Connor Heyward does here. That’s impressive.
Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 1:39.
Connor Heyward is the fourth Steelers player from the top of the screen, two players up from the kicker.
Here’s Connor Heyward covering the following kickoff, getting downfield, beating a block and coming close to making a great tackle.
Connor Heyward blocked a 260 lb. defensive end in the run game, ran stride for stride with George Pickens on his touchdown catch, and then ran through a blocker on kick coverage, with only the PAT in-between. Connor Heyward is a true Swiss army knife of a player who possesses the speed, power, hands and intelligence to be a real weapon for the Steelers, even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it.