PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward spent three weeks fruitlessly chasing opposing quarterbacks but never wavered from the answer, and it had nothing to do defensive coordinator Keith Butler coming up with intricate blitz packages to compensate for a nonexistent pass rush.
The way Heyward figured it, the defensive front needed to be better. A lot better. More aggressiveness. More winning 1-on-1 battles.
During four soggy quarters at Heinz Field on Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, the dam finally broke. And Heyward led the way.
His career-high three sacks — triple Pittsburgh’s season total coming in — helped spark a 43-14 thumping in which the Steelers looked every bit the contender with New England and Denver for AFC supremacy.
Seven days after getting clinically dissected by Philadelphia rookie quarterback Carson Wentz — a game Heyward described as the Steelers getting their butts kicked (only with more colorful language) — the Steelers’ defensive captain led the way.
“With us, when the defense has success, it’s because the defensive line does,” Heyward said.
A line that spent three hours manhandling the Chiefs. The chaos started immediately. Heyward sacked Alex Smith on Kansas City’s first drive and tipped an ill-advised screen pass that ended up in the arms of linebacker Jarvis Jones two possessions later.
In between, defensive end Stephon Tuitt forced a fumble that set up Pittsburgh’s first touchdown.
“We have the best big people in the NFL,” Steelers linebacker Vince Williams said. “Those guys really led the charge on the effort and hustle tonight.”
And showed a fair amount of resiliency, too. While Heyward groused during the slow start, Tuitt preached patience. He knew the sacks would come in waves for a group that piled up 48 a season ago.
So did linebacker Arthur Moats. As ineffective as the Steelers looked while the Eagles tore through them with ease, the truth is the film wasn’t all bad.
“When you watch it and see that, you’re not like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this big hole we’ve got to fix,'” Moats said. “It’s just like, ‘Hey man, if I do my job, you do your job, everybody does their job, everything is going to be fine.'”
Yes, the Eagles played well while rolling up 34 points, but the Steelers believe a lot of their issues were self-inflicted.
“We had a lot of opportunities to get off the field, a lot of chances to stop the score from getting like that and getting those type of yards,” Moats said. “It was more us missing assignments, penalties on third downs, penalties in critical situations where we could get off the field.”
Against the Chiefs, the majority of those mistakes disappeared. Kansas City scored a pair of token touchdowns with the game well out of reach in the fourth quarter.
Otherwise, Pittsburgh played with confidence and speed even with a slew of reserves getting extended playing time due to injury.
Safety Jordan Dangerfield finished with five tackles in place of Robert Golden. Cornerback Justin Gilbert played for the first time since being acquired in a trade with Cleveland on the eve of the season.
Williams set a career high with 13 tackles while Ryan Shazier rested a balky right knee. Williams even picked up his first solo sack with a second quarter takedown of Smith.
Coach Mike Tomlin isn’t quite ready to say Blitzburgh is back, though the results were certainly promising.
“I just think we performed better,” Tomlin said. “I don’t know that we reinvented the wheel tonight, schematically … I just thought they made it come alive.”
NOTES: RB Le’Veon Bell said he felt just fine after playing in his first full game in nearly a year. Bell finished with 178 yards of total offense on 23 touches in his return from a torn MCL in his knee suffered on Nov. 1, 2015, and a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. … WR Darrius Heyward-Bey caught a touchdown pass before leaving the game with a shoulder issue. Heyward-Bey directed any questions about his injury to Tomlin. … Pittsburgh signed RB Daryl Richardson to the practice squad after releasing him last week to make room on the 53-man roster for Bell.