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Emerging Forces

When the 2015 season started, the Steelers defense was assumed to be the Achilles’ heel of the team. However, the month of October saw the unit take major strides with the defense playing a key component in the Steelers staying afloat without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The success of defense was due in large part to the rise of veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward and second-year lineman Stephon Tuitt. Heyward’s ability came to fruition last season, and for that he was awarded a six-year contract in the offseason. Now in his fifth year, the Ohio State product has emerged as one of the top defensive lineman in the AFC.

“I can’t say enough about the contributions of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, in terms of their ability to push the pocket,” head coach Mike Tomlin said after a Week 4 victory in San Diego. “And that manifests itself in the form of sacks for those guys. I thought for the greater part of the night, they created a well that the quarterback had to throw out of.”

Both Heyward and Tuitt played a vital role in controlling the run game against the Chargers. The duo played a large portion of the game, despite the west-coast heat, and created problems for San Diego’s Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead. The Chargers finished the game with less than three yards per carry. Despite quarterback Phillip Rivers throwing for 365 yards, there was enough disruption to keep Rivers from connecting on key throws.

Tuitt and Heyward have dominated at the line of scrimmage—particularly in one-on-one situations—allowing them to disrupt offensive game plans.

“When you win one-on-ones and produce, you will have a good day,” Tomlin said.

Always known as a premier run stopper, Heyward took major strides in 2014 in the pass-rushing game, recording 7.5 sacks to go along with 38 quarterback hurries. With his 6-5, 300-pound frame, Heyward is not the prototypical size of a defender with those numbers. He started in all 16 games, and added four pass defenses to his season resume.

Heyward made news earlier this season when he was fined for honoring his late father, former NFL fullback and Pitt star Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, by writing his name in his eye black. Aside from that mini-controversy, 2015 has been nothing short of a Pro Bowl caliber season for the younger Heyward. He has 24 tackles and three sacks to his credit through the first seven games. His sack total is second on the team, behind only Tuitt’s four. He continues to produce clutch performances, even in losses.

In Pittsburgh’s Week 4 overtime loss to Baltimore, Heyward had a strip sack of Joe Flacco that resulted in a turnover and gave the Steelers an opportunity to put the game away. Heyward also gave the Steelers a lift in their loss against Kansas City with four tackles and a sack.

Tuitt has taken major strides this season as well. As a rookie, the second-round draft pick from Notre Dame started slow but finished strong. Tuitt played all 16 games last year but started the final four after a season-ending injury to Brett Keisel. Tuitt finished the season with 17 total tackles, 11 solo, and played at a high level in the season’s final month.

His statement game from 2014 came as the Steelers clinched a playoff berth with a win over the Chiefs. Tuitt, who had a sack in the contest, made the defensive play of the game in the second quarter. Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles took a short pass from Alex Smith, but before Charles could turn up field Tuitt was there to knock the ball out of Charles’ hands. Pittsburgh’s Vince Williams recovered the fumble, and the Steelers turned it into a score to solidify the win.

Tuitt’s strong finish to the 2104 season resulted in a starting role this year, and after a sluggish start against the Patriots in Week 1 where he only had one tackle, he registered 1.5 sacks in a blowout of San Francisco the following week. His success continued with recording five tackles and a sack against St. Louis. Tuitt was alongside Heyward in having a stand-up performance in a losing effort against the Ravens, producing a sack and playing a key role in several turnovers.

As good as Tuitt has been through six games this season, it may have been his absence in the Steelers Week 7 loss to the Chiefs that has best proved his worth to the defense. Without Tuitt, Heyward was the only Steelers lineman to produce any penetration at the line of scrimmage as Kansas City piled up 377 offensive yards.Steelers Stephen Tuitt

“We hope he continues to get better,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said of Tuitt. “I think the more he plays with the guys around him, the more of the same guys we can put around him, the better the whole team is going to be. So, hopefully, we will continue that progress.”

Tuitt’s and Heyward’s ability to peel off offensive lineman and take away running lanes at the point of attack, and rush the quarterback, have made the duo a focal point of opposing offenses.

“They put a lot of pressure on people and those players are making plays,” said Kansas City head coach Andy Reid.

The defensive success has been a group effort, but it starts up front. Tuitt and Heyward have led that charge.

“We embrace every challenge we get,” Heyward said.

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