The Steelers played nearly the entire game without a nose tackle—Steve McLendon and Al Woods both came in as defensive tackles in sub-packages throughout the game—but that didn’t limit Cameron Heyward, who played 66 of the Steelers’ 76 snaps on defense with Brett Keisel sitting out.
Though he didn’t register a sack this week, he made sure that his impact was felt in a variety of ways throughout the game, registering three pressures, batting a ball and deflecting another, and registering two stops to boot. He and McLendon were also responsible for forcing the punter to fumble on the fake field goal attempt.
Most noteworthy, to my mind, is that Heyward had one of the better games in his still-young career against the run.
For example, this is what Reggie Bush looks like when he tries to run past Heyward. The Lions used the left guard to chip him off the snap, but then left the center to his own devices against the rapidly rising defensive end. Watch him work laterally and then explode once he can get his arms around Bush, throwing him backward after a gain of one.
Something that he has shown continued acumen for this season, even before emerging into the starting lineup, is maintaining his awareness and, as previously mentioned, getting his hands on the ball. He got his hands on two in this game, this one at the line of scrimmage.
Notice the unusual formation on this play. The Steelers lined their two outside linebackers up on the left side of the defense, with their two defensive ends on the right. Heyward stood up and lined up wide of the left tackle with Lawrence Timmons hovering between he and Ziggy Hood.
After the snap, Hood and Heyward flipped, with Hood pushing the pocket wide and Heyward going up the middle. Because of the pressure by Jason Worilds, Matthew Stafford was forced to throw early, and because Heyward stayed aware, he was able to get his hands up and bat the ball down at the line.
Even more unusual, and impressive, though, was this pass defense at the end of the second quarter that helped keep the Lions out of the end zone. According to Pro Football Focus, Heyward has only dropped into coverage three times this year, including two in the Lions game. This was one of those plays. I’m not sure if the receiver would have gotten to it, but the effort itself is great. Also note the outside linebackers walking the tackles backward into the pocket.