Pittsburgh defensive end Cameron Heyward has been hell to block for years now. But after an injury plagued 2016 where he only played seven games, he somehow took his game to an even higher level this season.
In his first six seasons in the league, Heyward had never notched over 7.5 sacks in any given year, but he had already come home with double digit sacks this season before heading into the Steelers' Christmas Day showdown with the Houston Texans. It’s not always pretty, but Heyward just finds a way to get the damn job done.
Somebody should have alerted the Texans!
With a little less than six minutes left in the first quarter, the Texans had a second-and-5 at their own 32-yard line. Heyward was head up on left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo in a 2i.
On the snap, the Steelers ran a blitz with inside linebacker Vince Williams attacking through the right B gap outside of Heyward. Tight end Stephen Anderson, who was lined up as a wing to that side, went behind left tackle Julie'n Davenport to pick up Williams. The running back, Lamar Miller, stepped up just in case Anderson needed some help. Meanwhile, Heyward came inside to try to give Williams a bigger lane to run through and ended up getting double teamed by both Su'a-Filo and center Greg Mancz.
That protection should have been good enough for Houston quarterback TJ Yates to get the throw off.
Anderson pushed Williams all the way inside, and Williams ended up on the ground. Mancz and Su'a-Filo initially had Heyward on lock, but Heyward refused to stay blocked. He kept working against the double team and eventually came back outside across Su'a-Filo's face to the same B gap that Williams had run through. Yates, had to avoid the Anderson/Williams pile, so he shuffled to his left and took a step or two up in the pocket. He had the misfortune of moving that way just as Heyward was coming free off Su'a-Filo's block, from the frying pan right into the fryer.
Heyward reached out and took him down for a one yard loss.
No flash, just results.
With a little under three minutes left in the second quarter, Houston had a third-and-5 from their own 30-yard line.
This time Heyward was lined up as a one-technique in the right A gap, between Mancz and Su'a-Filo. That isn't normally what you would consider a good pass rushing alignment.
After the snap, Heyward was initially double teamed by Mancz and Su'a-Filo again, but as linebacker L.J. Fort went to hug up Lamar Miller, Su'a Filo came off thinking Fort was actually blitzing. That left Mancz one-on-one with Heyward, and that did not end well for him.
Once Heyward felt Su'a-Filo come off to look for Fort, he turned his full attention to Mancz and dump trucked his ass right back into Yates who was still trying to scan the field. Once Yates felt Mancz being throw into him, he tried to scramble away from the pressure, but it was already too late.
Heyward reached out with his inside arm and was able to pop the ball right out of Yates' hand. Heyward's teammate, Bud Dupree, was able to scoop up the fumble to give the ball back to their offense.
The Steelers subsequently kicked a field goal to take a 20-0 lead into halftime.
Now if you were expecting some flowery language from me about the moves Heyward used to get those sacks similar to what I wrote last week about Rams defensive linemen Aaron Donald, then you just have me and Heyward all fucked up.
Heyward does have good technique, and yes, he can win with finesse at times. But you go back through all 12 of his sacks this year and pretty much every one of them is a result of him running right through a guy and/or just continuing to hustle his ass off rather than some flashy finesse moves.
Personally, I don't give a damn how he got there, I only care that he found a way to get the job done. Whether you run through them or around them, the sacks count just the same.
And he's been giving teams that work all season.
Like a lot of people, I probably haven't given Heyward nearly enough credit for for the season he's having. It’s easy to get enamored with the guys making offensive linemen whiff before they get to the quarterback, but the blue collar sack artists like Heyward deserve praise. Every week I see guys shut it down when they get a double team or have to bull rush, but Heyward consistently keeps getting after it play after play.
His motor has payed great dividends this season.
After his performance on Sunday put him ahead of the aforementioned Donald in the sack race with 12 with one regular season game left to play, I have to admit it’s past time I put some respeck on Heyward's name.
With two sacks, a caused fumble, and three other tackles, Heyward helped his team lock down a playoff bye and keep them in contention for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. For that and his play in general this season, I am awarding him a long overdue Hoss of the Week award for Week 16.