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Will Cam Heyward’s injury have the same impact on the Steelers defense as Watt’s in 2022?

The star’s injury will have impact, but how much so?

San Francisco 49ers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Out for a while
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Will Cam Heyward’s injury have the same impact on the Steelers defense as Watt’s in 2022? The simple answer is, not likely.

Cam Heyward has been a rock on the right side of the defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the last twelve years.

An All-American at Ohio State, the Steelers drafted Cam 31st overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Many at the time thought it was a little early for his selection, as he was very good against the run but wasn’t an elite edge rusher. However, he was exactly what the Steelers look for in their 3-4 DEs. This sort of sounds similar to a draft pick the Steelers made this year in Keeanu Benton — only this time, many thought he could have gone higher. Well, good thing he didn’t, because it’s likely thanks to Benton that the Steelers will not miss a beat in Heyward’s absence.

Of course, “not missing a beat” may stillresult in a 4-13 season, but that would not be because of Cam’s injury.

T.J. Watt is a generational player. It’s unclear how so many did not see this coming out of college. Leading up to the draft, T.J. seemed locked as the Steelers No. 1. He fit. Those who watched him play in the B1G knew he was a beast. He still is.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens
In for a monster season
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Watt’s position combined with his abilities allows him to take over games if he gets a rhythm going. Obviously, he has a greater impact if Pittsburgh is not behind on the scoreboard. Even then, he makes his presence known as evidenced by his three sacks to start the season in what was otherwise a humiliating game for the Steelers.

In the words of Deion Sanders, “He is him.”

Cam is “him,” too, in his own right. Not really ever showing the pass rush chops until later in his career, Cam did what 3-4 defensive ends do. A large part of that is to allow the guys behind them to be the ones to take over games. As Cam’s pass rush skills evolved, so did the design of the defense, now asking the ends to create more of a rush than just tie-up blockers. When Stephon Tuitt was healthy on the other side, which wasn’t often, the Steelers defensive front was downright nasty for a three-man line.

Ultimately, though, the 3-4 defensive ends don’t make the headlines unless they are “him.” But the defensive end position, the way Cam has dominated, is not the same as what TJ Watt brings to the field.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

As you progress through the levels of the defense, it becomes more viable to play more freely so to speak — to improvise. Defensive linemen, same on the offensive line, have a job to do. That job is to stabilize the front with pressure and create a penetrating wall. The San Francisco 49ers are possibly the best in the league at this, if you didn’t notice while watching the game last week.

But there is no “freelancing” on the lines. Do your job. If you don’t, it trickles through the other levels of the defense. Obviously, it plays a huge role but is more easily replaced than an improvising athletic freak running over, around, and through players.

Benton being thrown into the fire with all the other “improved depth” from the offseason will have an opportunity to show the standard is the standard. The team can rally around this in a much better way than they did concerning TJ’s injury last year.

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers
Time to step up
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Armon Watts and Keeanu Benton will probably fill the void in the immediate. One player to keep an eye on further down the line, however, is DT Isaiahh Loudermilk. The 2021 fifth-round draft pick was considered on the roster bubble entering his third season, and he made the cut. It’s not by chance, he earned it. But if he wants to continue to play for the Steelers there will have to be some solid playmaking moving forward. The future is now.

It’s an opportunity that only comes by injury and it’s a matter of what the younger guys choose to do with it. Out of Wisconsin like Watt before him, and more recently Benton and Herbig, everything about Loudermilk suggests he is a Steeler 3-4 defensive end — everything but his impact. He’s not much of a rusher, but he must hold the edge; they all must.

Will Cam’s injury have an effect? Absolutely. Possibly a positive one if the depth pieces seize the opportunity, as there is so much still unknown about them. Add in the fact that lessons were learned from Watt’s injury, Cam may be coming back to a team that is making a push for the playoffs without having to worry about being “him.”