Cameron Heyward eyes breakthrough year

Unsolicited praise from his head coach did not elicit much more than a shrug of the shoulders from Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward.

It's not that Heyward didn't appreciate what Mike Tomlin said about the former doing well in training camp and the preseason. But, as Heyward said, they are just words.

“You've got to take the preseason and training camp with a grain of salt right now because the regular season is a different battle and you've got a whole different scheme,” Heyward said. “I'm looking forward to going out there and executing my job, but I can only say it's a start. I can only improve on that and run with it.”

The Steelers would love nothing more than for Heyward, their first-round draft pick in 2011, to do just that.

The 6-foot-5, 288-pounder played sparingly his first two seasons in part because he has been blocked at right defensive end by Brett Keisel. But this is a critical season for Heyward on several fronts.

The Steelers want him to ease the burden on Keisel, who turns 36 later this month and provide pressure on the quarterback when he plays in different sub-packages.

The Steelers also want to see if Heyward is a part of their long-term plans, especially with so much uncertainty surrounding defensive end.

Both Keisel and Ziggy Hood, the other starter, are in the final year of their contracts, meaning the Steelers are also keeping an eye on the future at defensive end.

The future could be now for Heyward, who appears to be in excellent shape and is no longer thinking as much as he is reacting due to his grasp of the Steelers' complex defense.

“It's more fluid,” Heyward said of when he is on the field. “I already know the call and what my job is and what others are doing. But now I'm trying to see the formation and get a better feel for the tendencies, just little things like that and seeing the game from a broader perspective instead of just my own perspective. When you can pick up little tendencies, tricks of the trade, it's going to help you go out there and play faster and be more confident in what you're doing.”

As for the jump he hopes to make in his third season, Heyward made one thing clear.

“I expect a lot out of myself ,” the former Ohio State star said, “and my goals are much higher than just the preseason.”