The ’23 Steelers opening day loss to the 49ers left virtually no positives (save for perhaps Anthony McFarland’s play.) But worse than the 30-7 drubbing, the Steelers lost Cam Heyward for what most expect to be an 8 week stretch.
This one hurts.
Without Heyward the Steelers won’t simply be losing a man who has 20.5 sacks to his name over the last two years alone, they’re losing their undisputed leader on the field and off of it.
Cam Heyward has been remarkably durable throughout his career. With the exception of 2016 you can count the games Heyward has missed due to injury on your fingers.
- Yet, this isn’t the first time the Steelers have lost Cam Heyward for an extended stretch.
And if it looks bad to lose Heyward now, things felt far bleaker when Heyward went in injured reserve in 2016. The Steelers had just lost 4 straight games, including giving up 2 touchdowns to Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys inside the 2-minute warning.
When news of Heyward’s torn peck broke, this humble scribe channeled his Bill Paxton, posting a YouTube video declaring, “Game Over Man, Game Over!”
- The defense was floundering and it has just lost its best and most consistent player.
- The season truly seemed be lost.
Except the defense wasn’t done and the Steelers season would extend all the way to the AFC Championship.
Can the Steelers flip the script again?
Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Rebound
As Mike Tomlin declared this week, there is no one man who can replace Cam Heyward. And, in that respect, on paper at least the Steelers are in better position at defensive line than they were in 2016.
But Ogunjobi and Adams have far stronger supporting casts to lean on. In 2016 the Steelers backup defensive ends were Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton, Johnny Maxey with Daniel McCullers offering depth at nose tackle. Mathews and Maxey never played a down after 2016 and Walton and McCullers remained on the roster as footnotes for a few season afterwards.
Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler made changes in the way they deployed the Steelers defense during the back half of 2016. But the biggest change came in Tomlin’s decision to start James Harrison over Jarvis Jones. Harrison might have “only” registered 3 sacks during the rest of the season, but one of James’ underrated abilities was to seal the edge in the run game.
- With T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers don’t have go to their outside linebacker bullpen, which is a plus.
A key difference which isn’t a plus compared to 2016 is experience. The Steelers defensive line is young, as it was in 2016, but in contrast to ’16, the inside linebackers playing behind them are new to the team and to the system.
On the flip side, the Steelers secondary of 2016 didn’t have anyone remotely close to the caliber of Minkah Fitzpatrick, nor did they have anyone with the pedigree of Patrick Peterson. Joey Porter Jr. is a rookie, but I don’t think we even need 20/20 hindsight to say he’s an upgrade from Artie Burns who was a rookie in 2016.
So when you weigh the differences in personnel and experience between 2023 and 2016, the Steelers have about an even shot at compensating for Cam Heyward’s absence.
Interesting Insider Insight
The situation may have felt desperate from the outside looking in in 2016, but that was not the case on the South Side.
As Craig Wolfley reported in Steel City Insider the day after the 2016 loss to the Cowboys an assistant coach declared: “You’re about to see one of the greatest turnarounds in Steelers history.”
- That prediction came from Todd Haley of all people.
Haley was right because Mike Tomlin doesn’t just mouth his “Next man up” mantra, he lives it. If he can get his players to buy into as strongly he did in 2016 then the Steelers should be able to weather the storm without Cam Heyward.