Cam Heyward wanted the pressure. He believed the Steelers defense was built to shoulder the load early in the season until the offense could find its footing. He still believes that, even if some of the best defensive players are on the sidelines and some unfamiliar faces are lining up next to him Sunday afternoon against the Bengals.
"I think we have quality depth, and that's going to be tested right now," Heyward said Thursday morning. "Whatever mistakes happen on offense or special teams, the defense has to clean them up. Coach always tells us you don't control how you're on the field, but once you're on the field, you have to step up."
The Steelers might need a lot of young players to take on a heavier workload after almost half the defense went down with injuries in the Raiders game and are questionable to play against the Bengals. Among the players who might not play on Sunday include starting outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, starting cornerback Joe Haden and reserve defensive lineman Carlos Davis.
Already ruled out is starting defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, who was placed on injured reserve after fracturing his ankle in the Raiders game. He's the second starting defensive end on IR. Stephon Tuitt is on the list for at least one more week.
The Steelers could roll out a starting lineup that includes Chris Wormley, Isaiah Buggs, Jamir Jones and James Pierre. Rookies such as Tre Norwood and Isaiahh Loudermilk might be forced to play a lot, and players currently on the practice squad might have to be called up to the active roster.
So, Keith Butler, who are you going to have on Sunday?
"That's a good question," the Steelers' defensive coordinator said. "I don't know. We'll see."
The only good news is many of the younger and more inexperienced players were thrown into the fire last week. Pierre played every defensive snap after Haden came down with a hamstring injury late last week. Alualu went down in the first quarter so Loudermilk saw his first NFL snaps. Jones, who played one snap against Buffalo, played 15 after Watt went down late in the second quarter.
"I think they'll be better because of it," Heyward said. "With having rookies and young guys, these early games will help them get seasoned. The more reps they get, the better they become.
"Sometimes, you get a wrench thrown in. You have to be able to adjust. Hopefully those guys are ready to step up."
The Steelers have faced two of the NFL's top offenses in the first two weeks of the season. The Raiders lead the league in yards per game and are eighth in scoring after their 26-17 victory at Heinz Field last week. The Bills, whom the Steelers held to 16 points in the opener, put up 35 points in Miami against a Dolphins defense that is expected to be one of the best in the league.
The Bengals come into Heinz Field with a 1-1 record. Like the Steelers, they struggled to get their offense on track in a loss in Chicago last week. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow was intercepted three times and was sacked five times. He's been sacked nine times in the first two games.
Under normal circumstances, this would be an ideal matchup for the Steelers, who like to confuse young quarterbacks and pressure them into mistakes. But with so many key players questionable to play in the game, it's hard to say if the Steelers will have their usual arsenal of players.
Butler indicated he might not know until Sunday morning if some of his starters will be available. In the meantime, he's preparing the younger players for bigger roles just in case.
"You always wish you had your starters," Butler said. "There is a reason they're starters and paid big money. They've showed they can do it in this league. The guys behind them are unknowns. We can't guarantee anything. We won't know what's going to happen until we line up and play. We're just trying to do the best we can with what we've got."
One thing that could help: turnovers. The Steelers were second in the league with 27 takeaways last season. It's early, but they only have one this season.
"We have to get turnovers," Heyward said. "We have to create a climate where turnovers happen. We had them on 3rd-and-10, and they get a big touchdown. We didn't create enough situations where we could create havoc."(c)2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.