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
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
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
”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
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
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