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Without Cam Heyward, Steelers coaching staff must find a way to mask his absence

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have huge shoes to fill without Cam Heyward, but it will be up to the coaching staff to mask his absence with scheme and design.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers were dealt a crippling blow to their defense with the news of Cameron Heyward being lost for the year with an injury to his pectoral muscle. The team didn’t just lose their best defender, but also their leader. Heyward vowed to remain an integral part of the team, even though he won’t be on the field making plays with his teammates.

While most fans rolled their eyes and said, “Here we go again...” the fact of the matter is the Steelers still have a lot to play for. With that in mind, the coaching staff will have to find a creative way to help mask the absence of Heyward on defense.

Before I go any further, know you can’t replace Heyward. He is a force to be reckoned with, and his ability to stop the run while getting after the passer will be missed from the lineup for the remainder of the season, however long that may be. Nonetheless, the coaching staff is now faced with a difficult task. How do they keep the defense from falling apart without No. 97 in the mix?

This isn’t their first go-around without Heyward, as he missed 3 games with a hamstring injury earlier this season, so they can lean on that experience to help them find a way through this tough stretch. One thing the coaching staff can’t do is simply lean on the “next man up” philosophy.

That is what they tried to do earlier this season, and they were absolutely gashed in the run game in consecutive weeks. Javon Hargrave could turn out to be a tremendous talent, but he is a rookie and lacks the size and strength to fill in for Heyward. Ricardo Mathews certainly showed flashes of what he is capable of in the preseason, but it appears his burst was more a showing of his competition than his overall ability. Daniel McCullers is a true nose guard, but seems to be nothing more than a big body.

What I’m trying to say is you can’t just throw any combination of Hargrave, Mathews, McCullers or anyone else they bring in, and expect the same results. No, now is the time to be creative.

As highlighted by our own 58Steel’s Film Room article, the team has been using some different looks to help stop the run. The “faux 4-3” the team has been using with more and more regularity is a great example of changes which can be made to help fix a problem the defense is experiencing.

Some might suggest moving to a 3-3-5 look, or deploying more of their base 3-4 defense to help with the transition, but the point is something has to change. Everyone was witness to what happened when Heyward missed time earlier this season, and that simply can’t happen again...not if the Steelers want to make a run at the postseason in the latter half of the regular season.

The Steelers have been able to overcome injuries in the past, and yes, even ones as big as the one they were dealt with Heyward’s season officially being over. However, with this defense, it isn’t as simple as just throwing out the next body on the depth chart.

The Pittsburgh coaching staff has been criticized harshly in recent weeks, and rightfully so, but they have a chance to prove their worth with how they alter the strategy, game plan and alignment to help account for the loss of their best defender and defensive leader for the remainder of the season.