For the majority of their respective careers, Cameron Heyward and Cameron Jordan have been regarded as afterthoughts on the list of defensive standouts picked in the 2011 NFL draft. Despite becoming productive first-round picks, they’ve been lost among a class filled with a bevy of near-immediate stars: Von Miller (no. 2 overall) and Patrick Peterson (no. 5) made the Pro Bowl as rookies; Aldon Smith (no. 7) was named first-team All-Pro in 2012, just as J.J. Watt (no. 11) captured his first of three Defensive Player of the Year awards; Robert Quinn (no. 14) nearly became the NFL’s sack king in 2013; and even guys who weren’t picked in the first round got higher billing than Heyward and Jordan, as Richard Sherman (no. 154) earned first-team All-Pro nods from 2012–14.
Yet as some of those players have faded into the backdrop over the past few years, Heyward (no. 31) and Jordan (no. 24) have stepped to the forefront. Now in their seventh season, the two defensive linemen deserve mention among the game’s best. Their winding paths to the spotlight have been delayed for differing reasons, but in 2017 they’ve ended up in similar spots. Both the Steelers and Saints were expected to thrive behind high-flying offenses. Instead, it’s been their defenses that have propelled both teams toward the top of the standings and potential first-round byes.
Finally out of the shadow of their draft mates, the Camerons have powered two units that’ve helped define this unlikely NFL season. And for Pittsburgh and New Orleans to get where they want to go, they’ll have to keep riding a pair of players whose standing—both on the field and in the 2011 draft pecking order—is now unmistakable.
Heyward’s early days in the NFL were much like those of many Steelers rookies from the Mike Tomlin era. Despite his first-round pedigree, the Ohio State product played sparingly during his first two professional seasons. His first start didn’t come until 2013, when he stepped in for another first-round pick, Ziggy Hood, in a Week 3 loss to the Bears. Heyward collected five sacks that season, sparking a two-year run of quiet but steady production that included 12.5 sacks. When the Steelers made him the 11th-highest paid defensive end in football by giving him a six-year, $59.2 million deal before the 2015 campaign, it was widely perceived as a fair extension for an above-average starter who lagged behind the top tier.
In the two and a half seasons since signing that contract, Heyward has established himself as an indisputable bargain. Thirty-five defensive linemen are currently on deals with a higher guaranteed salary in 2017; few have had the impact of a guy who this fall has amassed seven sacks while helping the Steelers defense regain the dominant form it showed during the first half of Tomlin’s head-coaching tenure. Pittsburgh finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in 2011 before dropping to 19th by 2013 and plummeting to 30th the following season. After climbing to 11th in 2015 and then sticking there again last season, this year’s unit has clawed all the way back to greatness, ranking third in DVOA and second in points allowed (16.5). And Heyward has been at the center of that resurgence.
Heyward is a defensive end by traditional position designations, but like most linemen who play in hybrid schemes, his role is more complicated. The Steelers run some textbook 3-4 fronts, which have become increasingly rare in the modern NFL. In those cases, Heyward typically aligns head-up over the left tackle, with Javon Hargrave over the center, Stephon Tuitt mirroring Heyward on the other side, and pass rushers like Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt flanking each of them. Most of the time, though, that’s as wide as Heyward will set up before the snap.
He does the majority of work as an interior lineman in the Steelers’ four-man fronts, often as a three-technique tackle lined up just outside the guard—a position that’s become one of the most pivotal on any NFL defense. With quarterbacks getting rid of the ball faster than ever, finding interior rushers who can quickly put pressure on the pocket is essential. And while many of his interior counterparts like Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, and Fletcher Cox are effective in large part because of their excellent initial burst, Heyward dominates opponents simply by tossing them around.
That approach was on full display in Pittsburgh’s 40-17 rout of the Titans last Thursday night. Heyward tallied two sacks and three quarterback hits, and his first sack showcased how he’s found so much recent success. On a second-and-6 with three seconds remaining in the first quarter, Heyward exploded off the ball and drove two hands directly into guard Quinton Spain’s chest. This type of tight bull rush both maximizes leverage and negates the punch that Spain is trying to deliver; and in this case, Heyward did a quick rip with his inside arm, slid past Spain, and dragged down Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota for an 8-yard loss. In a way, this wasn’t complex: It was one large man simply overpowering another. But the subtleties of this set of moves—the perfect aiming point of Heyward’s initial strike and the wherewithal to rip through at the right moment—are what allowed him to utilize his ridiculous play strength.
On the off chance that Heyward does line up outside, his brute force is even more apparent. Check out this play from Pittsburgh’s 26-9 win over the Ravens in Week 4:
That’s Ronnie Stanley at left tackle for Baltimore. He weighs 312 pounds and was the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft. Heyward drives him back so fast that Stanley is forced back about 2 yards in midair as he tries to hop and anchor his body. Disaster is averted because Joe Flacco gets the ball out quickly, but man, does that look like one hellacious afternoon for an offensive lineman.
The Steelers staff knows that Heyward and Tuitt are too powerful for most offensive tackles to handle. Pittsburgh drafted the 6-foot-6, 304-pound Tuitt in the second round of the 2014 draft, and among the hundreds of defensive linemen listed in MockDraftable’s database, Heyward is his no. 1 match, according to the resemblance of their athletic profiles. This is a franchise that knows exactly what it wants in hybrid defensive ends, and it often tries to unlock them by using ordinary line stunts in unconventional manners. On most defenses, a twist between an interior linemen and an edge player—with the inside man slanting out and the outside guy looping around him—is designed to get a speedy pass rusher to come unblocked up the middle. For Pittsburgh, the interior players who are usually relegated to occupying blockers become the more dangerous half of the stunt, because both Heyward and Tuitt possess seemingly inhuman strength.
Heyward may be an unconventional sack leader, but his contributions to the Steelers run defense—and the way that they free up Pittsburgh’s other standout athletes—are textbook. He is a master at eating up blocks and holding his ground at the point of attack on the line of scrimmage, and that dirty, often thankless role allows guys like linebacker Ryan Shazier to fly around unencumbered. Take this play from the third quarter of the win over Tennessee. Heyward is lined up as a three technique with both Watt and Shazier aligned next to him outside. As Heyward holds up the left guard and running back DeMarco Murray after crashing into the B gap, Shazier has a free lane to spill inside and make a tackle.
These are the types of plays that have fueled the 2017 Steelers. Heyward routinely swallows up double teams and slows down combo blocks, leaving Shazier, linebacker Vince Williams, and defensive backs like Mike Hilton and Sean Davis with nothing but grass between them and opposing ball carriers. Through means both obvious and quiet, Heyward has lifted the entire Pittsburgh defense to a higher level. After years of being overlooked, he’s finally the focal point of a dominant group that’s in prime position to contend for the AFC title.
Unlike Heyward, Jordan wasn’t eased into the mix as a first-round pick. The former Cal star was immediately thrust into the Saints starting lineup in 2011, and was elected to the Pro Bowl by his third NFL season. Jordan has garnered individual accolades that have eluded Heyward, but he’s been part of defenses that have been widely panned. Jordan has recorded two seasons with double-digit sacks and 54.5 in his career, but stars on units that give up nearly 30 points per game are rarely celebrated.
This season, the surging Saints finally have a defense worthy of Jordan’s talents. On occasion, Jordan will serve a similar role to the one Heyward fills in Pittsburgh. The Saints have a 3-3-5 alignment in their playbook that puts Jordan head up over the tackle. For the most part, though, he does his damage on the edge. And whereas Heyward’s style can be brutish, Jordan’s is defined by his ferocity. He’s capable of plays that can make you do a spit take. His most dominant 2017 performance came in the Saints’ 52-38 win over the Lions in Week 6. Jordan finished with two sacks, two quarterback hits, two passes defensed, an interception, and a touchdown. Read that again. See—spit take.
Jordan’s second sack in that game came late in the third quarter with the Lions deep in New Orleans territory, and it’s a good glimpse at what makes him so scary as a pass rusher. He’s perfected the standard speed-to-power approach, although it appears anything but ordinary for a player with his abilities. Because of Jordan’s speed, Lions backup right tackle Brian Mihalik is forced to take a vertical pass set at the snap. That means that he immediately retreats off the line, and Jordan counters with a power move straight through Mihalik’s chest. The 6-foot-4, 287-pounder launches Mihalik into Matthew Stafford, picking up a sack without ever touching the quarterback.
This is the type of result that sets Jordan apart. Even though he’s close to 300 pounds, opponents still have to respect his explosion off the line. His blend of size and speed makes him borderline unblockable at times, and it has the potential to sabotage blocking schemes that would otherwise work.
Take this play early in the fourth quarter of the same game. The Lions have a first-and-10 from the New Orleans 45-yard line. When the ball is snapped, rookie tight end Michael Roberts (no. 80) is supposed to crack Jordan and allow tackle Rick Wagner to release to the outside. Instead, Jordan flies into the backfield so quickly that Roberts barely touches him. As Roberts whiffs, he manages to also take out the center, and Jordan is free to drag Ameer Abdullah down 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage and turn the running back’s jersey into string cheese.
Jordan has been superb against the pass and against the run for some time, only now the difference is that the Saints’ supporting cast is keeping pace. Breakout campaigns from guys like Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and Alex Okafor (who is now on the IR after tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 11) have allowed him to be more effective than ever, and he’s cruising toward a career year with eight sacks. For the first time in years, the Saints have a complete defense, and it’s made them a legitimate threat in the NFC.
In the bizarre reality that is the 2017 season, the Steelers and Saints boasting two of the league’s top defenses is a fitting twist. And as both teams barrel toward the playoffs, the unsung defensive linemen who make their units go have finally earned their place among the more celebrated stars from an all-time great draft class.