Injuries are an unfortunate inevitability in the NFL. They can be minor ones that simply make a player uncomfortable, they can be a season-ending issue, and God forbid, there are even career-ending injuries that can occur on the football field. Fortunately for Pittsburgh Steelers and DL Cam Heyward, his injury doesn’t fall on the severest end of that particular spectrum.
However, Heyward will still be out for an extended period of time this season. That means when the Cleveland Browns roll into Acrisure Stadium for Week Two’s Monday night matchup, the Steelers will be a little short-handed up front against a very good running game led by RB Nick Chubb. When Cleveland offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt spoke with the media on Friday, he discussed the difference between Heyward playing and not playing.
“When you’re talking about one of the elite defensive players in the league, that’s not going to be there, I’m not upset about it,” Van Pelt said per a Browns-provided transcript. “Unfortunately, I know obviously you don’t want to see guys hurt, but I would rather not play Cam.”
Obviously, Van Pelt isn’t taking glee in the injury. But the reality is not having to face Heyward is an easier job than having to plan for him. Cleveland ran for 206 yards in the 24-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week One. Chubb alone had 106 of those yards on 18 carries while QB Deshaun Watson ran the ball five times for 45 yards and a touchdown. Slowing that run game down would have been a tall task even with Heyward on the line of scrimmage, especially considering Pittsburgh allowed the San Francisco 49ers to gain 188 yards on the ground in the 30-7 loss.
Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin has to figure out how to slow down another potent rushing attack while his best defensive lineman is sidelined for almost the first half of the season. That means a heavy reliance on rookie DL Keeanu Benton along with Isaiaah Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal to try to fill in the now-gaping hole in the middle of the defensive line.
That also means the inside linebackers need to play better behind the line as well. LB Kwon Alexander talked this week about tackling being a major issue, and he wasn’t wrong. While Chubb is a different type of running back than the 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey, the task of tackling doesn’t get any easier on Monday. Now the inside linebackers are missing one of the key men lined up in front of them, too. Everyone has to step up and play better, otherwise, Monday will be as long a night as Week One’s afternoon was for the defense.
Of course, Van Pelt couldn’t stop himself from injecting a little humor into the situation, acknowledging that Heyward isn’t the only elite player on Pittsburgh’s defense.
“I’d rather not play T.J. [Watt],” Van Pelt added. “You know those are just the realisms of the game. They’re great players, and to take one of them off the field is going to be tough for them, obviously.”
At least Steelers fans will hopefully see Watt terrorizing the Cleveland offensive line as he did in his three-sack effort in Week One. Even more importantly, the fans will be hoping for a different result in Pittsburgh.