The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season has come to a screeching halt. Although they had their most decisive win of the season against the Cleveland Browns to close things out, other things didn’t go the Steelers way to make the postseason. On the Steelers final offensive drive of the season, the Steelers got a boost from their rookie tight end Connor Heyward. What is it that makes Heyward a viable option in 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:
After covering seventh-round draft pick Mark Robinson last week, we move up a round this time as sixth-round rookie Connor Heyward came through when needed for the Steelers on Sunday. Targeted four times in the game, Heyward caught three passes for 45 yards with a long of 27 yards. Not only were two of Heyward’s three receptions for first downs, so was his 6-yard run on a third and one in the first quarter.
With a six-point lead and more than 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Pittsburgh Steelers started what ended up being their last drive of the season with a 9-yard completion to Connor Heyward. After two first downs, one on which came on a third and 10 as a 17-yard completion to George Pickens, the Steelers were faced with a third and eight from the Cleveland 41 with 6:48 remaining in the game. Tight end Pat Freiermuth had been injured earlier in the drive, so Connor Heyward was once again called on with a 27-yard completion for a first down. Three plays later on another third and eighth, Heyward had his number again for a 9-yard completion, setting the Steelers up on the 3 yard line.
For the season, Connor Heyward has 12 receptions on 17 targets for 150 yards and a touchdown. He also has two rushes for 27 yards, both of which are coming through in key moments as this week his carry extended the opening drive while his 21-yard gain on Christmas Eve allow the Steelers to take victory formation.
All these things sound great, but how do they look? That’s why we need the film.
The Film Line:
Before getting into the plays that give the numbers, let’s look at something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
Steelers vs. Browns, 1st quarter, 11:51
Connor Heyward (#83) is the H-Back, furthest to the left side of the screen.
This is the most common role you see Connor Heyward in. He’s not a good in-line blocker yet, but he’s a solid blocker on the move and has found a role on these blocks. Here he makes enough of a block to allow Najee Harris to get outside for a solid gain.
Steelers vs. Browns, 1st quarter, 9:57
Connor Heyward (#83) is the H-Back, furthest to the left side of the screen.
Heyward’s motion looks the same, but this time he ends up with the football, and gains six yards on third and 1. The Browns are all in on stopping Najee Harris, and Heyward easily converts the play. Versatility is key to Heyward’s role in the Steelers offense, as his blocking ability and usage makes him largely invisible to most of the defenders on this play.
Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 10:11
Connor Heyward (#83) is the H-Back, second from the left side of the screen.
Here again we get a similar start with Heyward running across the formation while Pickett turns like he’s handing off to Harris. This time it’s a rollout pass to Heyward and the play gains good yardage. Heyward’s quickness comes into play here as he’s able to get outside quick enough that the linebacker can’t set to meet him or cut his angle off, and Heyward gets 9 yards on first down.
What stands out even more on this play is that Heyward is close to his top speed here, he’s not a speed guy and this is about where his speed tops off. What is valuable is his body control at this speed. He’s able to maintain speed while turning his shoulders to prepare for a catch, turn the corner and power for the last few yards while moving at a pretty good speed.
Heyward doesn’t have breakaway speed, but his playing speed is quite good, his foot speed inside of plays is hard for defenses to account for.
Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 09:29
Connor Heyward (#83) is the H-Back, furthest to the right side of the screen.
His blocking helps him as a runner and receiver, but here you can see his threat as a player with the ball helps him as a blocker as well. The linebacker isn’t crashing hard to stuff the run here, he’s essentially covering Connor Heyward. Heyward has this block won before he even engages, because the threat of Heyward as a ball carrier causes the defender to pause and lose momentum, and Harris has a nice hole to run through.
Heyward has already carved out a role as an H-back with a versatile skill set in Matt Canada’s offense, but his versatility extends even farther, as Heyward has shown multiple times when he lines up out in the slot.
Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 6:48
Connor Heyward (#83) is lined up in the slot to the bottom of the screen.
A quick shimmy to get the corner to reveal what leverage he is defending with, Connor then blows past him, stacks the corner, and makes a great catch for a nice chunk of yards. Heyward isn’t going to convince anyone he should be playing wide receiver, but he understands his routes and is as good a route runner as many receiving tight ends. His acceleration and play speed show up again here as he burns and then stacks a cornerback. He then shows off his great body control while running close to his top speed.
Seriously. That’s a 4.72 40-yard dash guy creating separation in three strides on a cornerback. Playing speed (how fast you can run while making football plays) and acceleration are much more valuable than top-end sprinting speed.
Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 5:37
Connor Heyward (#83) is lined up in the slot, second from the bottom of the screen.
It’s a simple little route for Heyward here. He gets the corner to widen out beyond the numbers, then cuts inside for a nice gain. He shows good body control to shield the ball and make the catch. This is a 4-wide set using 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). That makes it hard for the Browns to defend, especially when you have Connor Heyward out there able to beat a defensive back on routes like this and the previous clip.
Connor Heyward isn’t a polished player yet, he has room to grow as a runner, receiver and blocker. But his versatility is already showing its value. The Steelers have tried to find players that can be blockers, runners and receivers for years. Carey Davis, Will Johnson, Roosevelt Nix, Jaylen Samuels, and Derek Watt are all players that the Steelers tried to put into that triple threat role. None of them have shown the promise Connor Heyward is already showing for the job.
When you combine Heyward with Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers have two players that can come in and block, run from the H-back position, or go out and beat a cornerback in coverage, it makes it very hard to match defensive personnel to the threats the Steelers have on the field.
Connor Heyward isn’t going to be a super star, but in this offense, he brings matchup problems to the opposing defense, and versatility to the Steelers. He looks to be that player the Steelers have been looking for the entirety of Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach.