San Francisco took advantage of Heyward’s absence by focusing on its rushing attack through Christian McCaffrey, who had a 65-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and ended the day with 152 yards on 6.9 yards per carry.
“We got kicked in the teeth today in a lot of ways,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after the 30-7 defeat to San Francisco.
The loss of Heyward is a brutal blow for a team already dealing with a wake-up call entering Week 2.
Isaiahh Loudermilk and second-round rookie Keannu Benton figure to get more playing time with Heyward out, but the experience and leadership of the 13-year veteran is irreplaceable.
Heyward has made six straight Pro Bowls entering 2023 and is coming off consecutive 10-plus sack seasons. The 34-year-old’s run-stuffing antics along the D-line often go underappreciated and the focus of his presence from opposing teams has aided T.J. Watt’s meteoric rise as an elite pass rusher in recent years.
Watt had a big injury following Week 1 this time last year for the Steelers, so Tomlin’s squad certainly isn’t unfamiliar with adversity. But it won’t make life easier going forward with Pittsburgh’s stalwart missing along the defensive line.
The Steelers (0-1) host the Cleveland Browns (1-0) on Monday night.