PITTSBURGH -- It seems ludicrous now considering that he may be the Steelers’ best defensive player this season. But it wasn’t too long ago that it was easy to wonder if the Steelers had made a mistake when they used their 2011 first-round pick on Cameron Heyward.
He played sparingly outside of special teams his first two seasons, and it was also easy – or convenient – to forget that Heyward didn’t have the benefit of getting acclimated to a new defense before his first training camp because of the lockout.
Or that it takes years for ends to master the technique and hand-to-hand combat skills that are necessary to succeed in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense.
Heyward, it can be argued, is actually ahead of schedule. And any questions about whether he has arrived were erased last Sunday against the Dolphins.
Heyward recorded a career-high 10 tackles, and he displayed a brute strength on a couple of them in yanking Dolphins ball carriers to the ground. The former Ohio State star is second on the Steelers with 24 quarterback pressures and third on the team with four sacks.
And yet when asked if development has been a source of satisfaction this season, Heyward said, “No, because it just doesn’t show up on the [score]board. I think I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing out there. I just want it to translate onto the board. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Heyward is a main reason why the Steelers have hope that their future performances translate into wins – and not just in the final three games of the season.
The player who didn’t open the season as a starter -- he supplanted Ziggy Hood in the lineup after the fourth game -- has emerged as a cornerstone whom the Steelers can build around as they re-tool their aging defense. Heyward has also established himself as the next in a line of defensive ends who have distinguished themselves, most notably Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.
“I’ve had the pleasure of just getting to learn from those guys and there’s so much I’ve learned,” Heyward said. “I’m just trying to live up to the hype. Those guys have set the bar pretty high and just trying to carry it on.”
He has already started doing just that.
“Cam had a lot of God-given ability. It just took him some time to learn what to do," Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "He’s getting better and better. He feels more comfortable. We wanted to get him on the field because he was making plays.”