PITTSBURGH (AP) — There is no replacing Cam Heyward.
There is no one else on the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line with Heyward's resume and perhaps just as importantly, his preternatural ability to eat up — and occasionally knife through — double teams.
Mike Tomlin knows this better than just about anyone.
Which is why the Steelers longtime coach isn't even going to try. Tomlin has no plans to ask one player to fill in for Heyward while he recovers from groin surgery that will sideline him indefinitely. He's going to ask pretty much everyone available heading into Monday night's visit from Cleveland.
Armon Watts? Yes. Isaiahh Loudermilk? Yep. DeMarvin Leal and Keeanu Benton? Them too.
“I thought one of the strengths of our group coming out of team development (was) the depth and competition and the tough decisions that we had to make in the defensive line,” Tomlin said. “And it won’t be a long period of time before we get a chance to call upon that.”
And call upon it against a team that figures to test it repeatedly. The Browns love to bludgeon opponents with one of the NFL's best offensive lines creating holes for Nick Chubb.
Cleveland figures to be only more emboldened now that it's facing a team that was pushed around in a humbling 30-7 season-opening loss to San Francisco, a team that will spend the near future without its longtime defensive captain and unquestioned leader.
“It's definitely on all of us now,” said Loudermilk, who has been a pet project of sorts for defensive line coach Karl Dunbar since the Steelers took a flyer on Loudermilk in the fifth round of the 2021 draft.
Benton, a second-round pick in April, won raves during training camp for his athleticism and fearlessness. It will be tested against Chubb, who ran for 106 yards last week in a dominant win over Cincinnati and rolled up 190 yards in Cleveland's two meetings with Pittsburgh in 2022.
“There isn't going to be no arm-tackling this guy,” Benton said. “You really have got to wrap him up and take him down.”
Something the Steelers didn't do nearly well enough against the 49ers. San Francisco ran for 188 yards on the ground, 152 of them coming from Christian McCaffrey alone. McCaffrey can be slippery. Chubb is more comfortable lowering his shoulders, confident he will win a one-on-one matchup with whoever gets in his way.
“You've got to try to get them before they get a head full of steam,” Benton said. “Because once they’re in the open space it's a lot harder to tackle them.”
This is the second year in a row Pittsburgh has been forced to play without one of its defensive stars.
Perennial All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt tore his right pectoral in the 2022 opener against Cincinnati.
“It is kind of a deja vu feeling,” Loudermilk said. "But I know I think that we’ll be able to handle it pretty well because I feel like last year guys were able to step up."
Yes and no. Yes, the Steelers forged ahead without Watt. They just didn't do it successfully. Pittsburgh went 1-6 with Watt out of the lineup. That can't happen with Heyward out, not during a season in which it expects to contend for a playoff berth.
“I mean it’s a huge hole to fill,” Lowdermilk said. “But I think we’ve got a lot of guys who will be able to step up.”
They don't really have a choice. There is no timetable yet for Heyward’s return, though it seems unlikely he would be back before Pittsburgh’s bye (Oct. 15), meaning the Steelers will face at least three of the league's better running teams in Cleveland, the Las Vegas Raiders (Sept. 24) and Baltimore Ravens (Oct. 8), without a 13-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler who has embraced his role as the protector of “The Steeler Way.”
“Cam means so much, not only to this defense, but to this team,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “He's the voice of this team.”
A voice Tomlin expects will still be around as he rehabs from surgery.
“Cam is not the type of guy that moves away from his teammates whether he’s participating or not,” Tomlin said. “And so some of the intangible things, some of the things that you get day to day outside the white lines, we’ll still receive the benefit of that.”
The biggest question will be what type of season will be available to the Steelers whenever Heyward's familiar No. 97 runs back onto the field.
“We're just going to have to be able to hold it down,” Leal said.
NOTES: Tomlin said the team is still waiting for more information before offering a timeline on how long WR Diontae Johnson (right hamstring) might be out. ... Pittsburgh signed C Ryan McCollum to the practice squad.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press