Heyward stepping into leadership role for Steelers

Cam Heyward’s idea of a good time is grabbing his phone and

returning to his childhood.

”Looney Tunes.” ”Doug.” Pretty much any cartoon that ran on

Nickelodeon in the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end

is likely to pop in his ear buds and escape.

”I just like stuff that’s carefree,” Heyward said.

Consider it a respite from all the growing up he’s done in his

three seasons with the Steelers. The learning curve that looked so

steep as a rookie in 2011 has leveled off for the 24-year-old, who

suddenly finds himself as the linchpin on a line in transition.

Veteran Brett Keisel is out indefinitely with plantar fasciitis

in his left foot and with the 35-year-old is in the final year of a

contract that the Steelers appear in no hurry to renew. Nose tackle

Steve McLendon remains sidelined with an ankle injury. Former

first-round pick Ziggy Hood has struggled playing with any sort of

consistency.

Only Heyward has remained healthy and effective all season, the

raw tools he brought to the NFL when the Steelers (5-7) took him in

the 31st overall pick of the 2011 draft have been chiseled into

something decidedly more effective.

Heyward already has a career-high three sacks heading into

Sunday’s game against Miami (6-6), is second on the team with 23

quarterback pressures and even picked up his first career fumble

recovery – with an eight-yard return on top of it – in a victory

over Cleveland two weeks ago.

”He’s becoming a veteran player and his playing time is

starting to reflect that, his playing level is starting to reflect

that,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. ”I think

the future is definitely up for Cam, I’m glad that we got

him.”

The Steelers have certainly needed Heyward to take a step

forward. The powerfully built 6-foot-3, 288-pound Heyward never

lacked the talent or the work ethic. What he needed, LeBeau

insists, was a chance to work.

That’s not a particularly easy commodity to come by for a young

player in LeBeau’s complex 3-4 defense. Pittsburgh brought Heyward

along slowly in this first two seasons, using him in rotation with

Hood but rarely letting Heyward play for long stretches.

Sensing it was time to make some changes to the way he prepares,

Heyward remained in Pittsburgh last offseason, often picking up

troubled nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu to the team practice facility,

where the two big men spent hours working out and watching

tape.

”I’ve just been trying to grow as a player as much as

possible,” Heyward said. ”That’s been my mantra: Work hard to try

to get better every day. There are a lot of guys who have helped me

along the way, and I just want to be a quality starter in this

league.”

He’s well on his way. The son of former NFL running back Craig

”Ironhead” Heyward plays with the same kind of fury in which his

father would power through a linebacker 20 years ago.

Where his father was a compact 260-pound ball of kinetic energy,

Heyward is taller and leaner but no less intense. He already has

six pass deflections this year, including one that led to Ryan

Clark’s interception in Pittsburgh’s first victory of the season in

New York two months ago. Heyward credits his improved instincts to

the confidence that comes from knowing what you’re doing when you

step on the field.

”Experience has been a big key for me,” he said. ”When I get

more time out there, more reps and more opportunities, I can play

with my hair on fire.”

Heyward’s scalp will need to be blazing on Sunday if the

Steelers want to keep their chances of making a run at a playoff

berth alive. There should be plenty of chances against Miami and

quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has absorbed a league-high 45

sacks.

It’s a number that could be significantly higher if not for

Tannehill’s ability to escape pressure and extend plays. It’s

something Heyward has faced plenty of times while trying to chase

down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in practice.

”He’s not as tough as Ben, but he’s also able to stay in the

pocket and has an arm to help those receivers out,” Heyward said.

”They have a lot of talent on offense that works really well

together, so they’re a scary combination.”

At the moment, so is Heyward.

NOTES: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell practiced on Thursday and

expects to play on Sunday. Bell left last week’s loss to Baltimore

with a concussion following a scary collision at the goal line.

Though Bell said he has passed an ImPACT test administered by the

team, he needs to be evaluated again before receiving the go-ahead

to play. … LB LaMarr Woodley (left calf strain) practiced

Thursday and could return after missing the last three games.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org