Steelers defense adjusting to life without Cam Heyward
PITTSBURGH (AP) Replacing Cam Heyward the football player may be the easy part for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Finding someone to do all the things their injured defensive end - out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle - does on the field that don't show up on tape will be considerably more difficult.
''It definitely hurts us,'' linebacker Ryan Shazier said. ''It punches you in the heart because he's the heart of our defense.''
One who does more than simply shrug off blocks and wrap up running backs. Heyward is one of Pittsburgh's four captains for reasons that go far beyond simple talent. He makes the line calls, offers in-game pointers and serves as the emotional fulcrum for the guys around him.
Now he's gone after an MRI discovered the twinge he felt in last week's loss to Dallas was actually his pectoral muscle shredding itself, leaving behind a defense that's failed to limit big plays during a four-game losing streak that's sent the Steelers (4-5) tumbling into a midseason crisis. While the winless Cleveland Browns (0-10) offer the promise of a temporary salve on Sunday, Pittsburgh understands it needs to find a way to get better quickly if it truly wants to turn things around.
''It's hard to lose a guy like your captain and stuff like that,'' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. ''But other guys have to step up. I mean, it's that time of year.''
If the Steelers want to get it together, they don't really have much of a choice.
''We've just all got to get better as a group,'' rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave said. ''That's our leader. He's the oldest on the D-line. He knows more than us. We've just got to grow up.''
Quickly. The defensive front faltered when a bum left hamstring forced Heyward out of the lineup for the first time in his six-year career last month. He could only watch in frustration as Miami's Jay Ajayi became the first player in 16 years to go over 200 yards rushing against Pittsburgh in a Week 6 loss and New England's Garrett Blount bulled his way for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns seven days later.
''Teams been running on us a lot lately,'' nose tackle Daniel McCullers said. ''That's not Steeler defense.''
At least not the way Pittsburgh used to play it. Not so much anymore. The proof came in the final 2 minutes last week against Dallas, when Ezekiel Elliott sprinted to the end zone twice to rally the Cowboys to a victory that sent the Steelers to their fourth straight loss. And that was with Heyward in the huddle. Now they've got to clean up the mistakes without him.
''Sometimes we get in the right spots and we're not executing,'' Shazier said. ''Sometimes we're in the right spots, getting moved out of the way and sometimes we're not doing the right thing.''
Heyward's absence puts more pressure on Stephon Tuitt, who defensive coordinator Keith Butler will move up and down the line in search of mismatches. That's fine by Tuitt, who has shown flashes of dominance at times but will now be asked to do it on a more consistent basis. He's developed a close friendship with Heyward during his three years in the league, in part because he knew at some point this moment would arrive.
''It's gonna be tough because we have a partnership, we have a chemistry,'' Tuitt said.
One Tuitt will try to develop with Hargrave, McCullers and Ricardo Matthews. Tuitt is more reserved by nature and joked earlier in the year he doesn't pay attention to the game plan and instead simply does what Heyward tells him to do. Now Tuitt will find himself doing the yelling.
''For me to get this role now, it's not under the circumstances I want them to be under but I almost get the veteran role back and teach my defensive linemen and lead by example.''
Heyward will still be around on the sideline and in meeting rooms. But not having his familiar No. 97 in the huddle will take some getting used to for a group that's grown accustomed to his steadying influence.
''He's like a brother to us outside of football,'' McCullers said. ''We always spend time with each other, hang out. It's big (to lose him). We've got to play hard for him.''
NOTES: TE Ladarius Green (knee), WR Sammie Coates (finger), S Jordan Dangerfield (groin) and TE Xavier Grimble (quadriceps) were limited on Wednesday. ... C Maurkice Pouncey (finger) and WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) did not practice.
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