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Is Connor Heyward ready to step into the Steelers fullback role?

Many are seeing Heyward as the answer to fill the fullback role in 2023, but does his skill set match up to what the Steelers need?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 league year is well underway. With the 2023 NFL draft now behind us, there are still questions when it comes to player usage. One player who could be used in a variety of ways is second-year player Connor Heyward. Is he ready to step into the fullback role? 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 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Connor Heyward was targeting 17 times where he had 12 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown. Additionally, he added two carries for 27 yards.

With Connor Heyward being a TE/FB on the Steelers roster, it is believed he could slide into the fullback role in his second season. In order to do that, Heyward would have to take on the additional role from Derek Watt where he had nine rushers for 21 yards and a touchdown in 2022 as well as five receptions for 11 yards and a touchdown.

It’s also important to look at how Heyward lined up for the Steelers when he was utilized on offense. Of his 174 snaps according to Pro Football Focus, Heyward lined up inline for 123 snaps, in the slot for 37 snaps, and split out wide for 14 snaps. Comparing that to Derek Watt last season, he lined up in the backfield for 34 snaps, inline for 35 snaps, in the slot for five snaps, and out wide for three snaps.

Another place both Connor Heyward and Derek Watt excelled was on special teams. Heyward played 284 special team snaps where he had nine tackles. As for Derek Watt, he played 290 special team snaps where he had four tackles.

So is Connor Heyward able to take over the fullback role as well as how we was utilized last season? Let’s see what the film says.

The Film Line:

The problem with a player like Connor Heyward is finding the right spot for him. He started out his NFL career as a tight end, so let’s look at how it went.

Heyward played sparingly before late in the Week 5 matchup with the Bills, when an injury to Pat Freiermuth put Connor Heyward into the role of #2 tight end.

Steelers vs. Bills, 4th quarter, 10:33

Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end to the bottom of the screen.

Heyward needs to deliver a chip to the edge rusher before releasing into his route. He tries, but he definitely doesn’t win first contact. While it slows down the rusher enough to take him out of the play, Heyward is also out of the play, getting off the line of scrimmage way too slowly after getting knocked back.

Steelers vs, Bills, 4th quarter, 10:33

Connor Heyward (#83) is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen.

Heyward does a good job on this play. Lined up out wide, he’s the lowest man on the threat list for the Bills and he takes advantage of the lax coverage for a first down. You can see the defense is far more concerned about Chase Claypool here, and it gives space for the pass.

Steelers vs. Bucaneers, 1st quarter, 9:11

Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end to the bottom of the screen, just inside Chase Claypool.

Jaylen Warren converts this 4th and 1, but look at Heyward against #98, Anthony Nelson, a 6’7” edge rusher. Heyward delivers a nice initial shot, but simply doesn’t have the length to shut Nelson out of the play. Fortunately it didn’t matter on this play, but you can imagine (and see on film) that the 6’8” Zach Gentry has a clear advantage blocking in these situations over the 6’0” Connor Heyward.

Steelers vs. Falcons, 2nd quarter, 7:12

Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end, third from the top of the screen.

Connor Heyward’s first career touchdown came off this double move. He starts with a wide release, bypassing any contact with the edge rusher, and creates separation when no one expects him to be a deep threat. You can see his acceleration after the fake and his nice hands. This is the threat Heyward brings as a depth piece. You can’t ignore him or play off of him like you can with a Zach Gentry.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 2nd quarter, 8:27

Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end to the left side of the screen.

Connor Heyward wasn’t a good blocker in 2022, and even when he got his man the play never really seemed to work well. You can see here as Heyward gets up he looks to the sideline like he is a bit confused. That was a common occurrence after these run plays.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 3rd quarter, 15:00

Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end to the right side of the screen.

He nails his block on this run play, but Najee Harris bounces it outside anyway. Harris didn’t trust Heyward as a blocker and didn’t run to him like he probably should have here. A lot of Najee Harris’ “vision” issues last season were when he was running to blockers that weren’t reliable where he would try to create something else rather than trust their blocks. His “vision” got better in the second half of the season as the blockers proved more trustworthy. Connor Heyward never got to that point with Harris, and that is something that will have to change if the Steelers are going to use Heyward as a lead blocker more.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 0:25

Connor Heyward (#83) is the wingback, farthest to the right side of the screen.

Heyward was much better with the ball in his hands than as a blocker, and late in the season he was more of a matchup specialist than the versatile player he has the potential to be. The Steelers consistently caught teams by surprise with Heyward’s quickness, in this case sealing a big win for the Steelers with this first down.

Steelers vs. Browns, 1st quarter, 9:57

Connor Heyward (#83) is the wingback, farthest to the left side of the screen.

Heyward’s best game was the last one of the season. Converting for a first down on this play, he ran the ball, caught passes, and made some of his best blocks of the season in the season finale.

Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 9:29

Connor Heyward (#83) is the wingback, farthest to the right side of the screen.

Using Heyward’s quickness coming across the formation to make a block out in space is a much better fit for him as a blocker than anything between the tackles. He shows great quickness, but also the ability to slow down and accurately meet his target to seal out the edge defender on this run. He doesn’t need to blow up the defender, or move him out of the way, just get to his target quickly and seal him out of the play. That is a job Connor Heyward was well suited for.

Steelers vs. Browns, 4th quarter, 10:11

Connor Heyward (#83) is the tight end to the left side of the screen.

This is another great use of Heyward’s skill set. Heyward starts this play like he does a lot of blocking plays, but he’s not blocking. He’s fast enough to get out in front of Kenny Pickett and the defense, allowing him to turn up field and fight for a first down. I love this play because it shows off his body control and smooth hands. Heyward is a good receiver, and that is his chief value to the Steelers.

The Point:

As the Steelers move Connor Heyward away from the tight end roles he played earlier in the season into more of an H-back role like he played later in the season and perhaps even to fullback snaps (remember, he had zero snaps in the backfield in 2022), it’s important to keep his skill set in mind. It is very unlikely that Heyward will suddenly become a lead blocker who can reliably move linebackers out of the hole. That’s just not his game. But his blocking does need to improve.

As a matchup piece for the Steelers offense, the better a blocker Heyward is, the more of a mismatch his speed and play-making will be. If he can handle blocking a linebacker in run plays, moving him out to the slot or running him across the formation for a pass will be harder to defend. If teams can put a safety on Heyward and get away with it in the run game, his value shrinks dramatically. Players typically improve their blocking a lot in their second season in the NFL. While I don’t expect a huge difference in Heyward’s game, I think he will carve out a bigger role as a matchup issue for defenses that can line up all over the field and contribute as a blocker in the run game and a mismatch creator on passing plays.