It was a plan inspired initially by a realistic pre-game assessment of what the Steelers might be capable of on offense, but in the end it may have shined a light on a better way to play defense.
After one game and perhaps the best game he’s ever played, defensive tackle Cam Heyward is a believer.
The idea, as Mike Tomlin had outlined it prior to the Steelers’ 23-16 win in Buffalo, was to take every precaution necessary to prevent the defense from wearing down throughout the regular-season opener. Given all the changes and all the new faces on offense, Tomlin was concerned about not having “great fluidity” on that side of the ball. He knew the defense would have to carry the day for the Steelers to win the day.
That’s why Tre Norwood and Arthur Maulet both played nickel cornerback. That’s why Joe Schobert and Devin Bush shared the responsibility of being the lone inside linebacker in the six-defensive backs “dime” defense. That’s why Cam Sutton moved inside in the “dime” (he’d historically played there in that sub-package) and James Pierre took over at outside cornerback in such situations.
And that’s why Heyward, a two-time All Pro, played just 66 percent of the defensive snaps.
Fewer, as it turned out, than a rookie seventh-round selection making his NFL debut (Norwood, 80 percent).
Heyward played 81 percent of the defensive snaps the last time he played 16 games in a season (2019) and has played as many as 87 percent (2014) and 88 percent (2015) previously.
But that was then and this is now.
And while it’s been something of a running joke among Steelers since the beginning of training camp that Heyward has become the defense’s “old man,” he is nonetheless 32 and in his 11th NFL campaign.
So allowances for Heyward’s (middle?) age needed to be made.
Based on the way he dominated Buffalo (two passes defensed, one sack, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble and more instances of putting the poor soul trying to block him on roller skates and just pushing him out of the way than an analysis of the tape could reasonably calculate), the new way of doing things agreed with Heyward.
He suspected it would prior to the statement the Steelers made against the Bills.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t play that much in preseason an I’m not trying to play 80-snaps,” Heyward told the DVE Morning Show on Tuesday. “It would have been absurd for me to play 80 snaps. Going into the season, I’ve talked to ‘Coach T’ (Tomlin) and I’ve talked to Coach Dunbar (defensive line coach Karl) and it’s been ‘let’s not play as many snaps,’ because you get to a point after the season, you’re just like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I played that many snaps.’
“It’s wear and tear on my body.”
Heyward played 56 snaps against the Bills and seemingly made each and every one count.
The division of labor also included increased workloads for Tyson Alualu (55 defensive snaps/62 percent), Chris Wormley (40/47) and Carlos Davis (17/20).
“It comes with trusting others and knowing that I have guys that can do it,” Heyward said. “And I do think we have the guys that can do it. A lot of our guys, especially in the trenches, are battle-tested.
“I don’t need to play every single down, or every single third down.”
Heyward has found the inspiration to embrace the new approach in the legend of Reggie White, who won his second Defensive Player of the Year award with the Packers in 1998.
White had been so honored previously, but not since 1987.
“He won the MVP at 37 years old and was playing less reps than he’d ever played before,” Heyward maintained. “That’s because he was fresh in the fourth quarter and he was able to dominate.”
The Steelers dominated Buffalo up front.
And that was without Stephon Tuitt, who has opened the season on the Reserve/Injured list.
Heyward being called upon less frequently helped ensure Tuitt, for a week, at least, would not be missed.
It’s an approach worth continuing to explore, even if the offense stumbles upon “fluidity” and the defense need not do as much of the heavy lifting.