Heyward optimistic about defensive line

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t shown any inclination to bringing back defensive end Brett Keisel for one more season.

Does that mean Cameron Heyward has ruled out the possibility of playing again with his mentor?

“I haven’t,” Heyward said, “but it’s not my decision.”

Heyward keeps in regular contract with Keisel and he said the 12th-year veteran has been working out with the hopes of extending his career beyond the 2013 season.

Even if Pittsburgh re-signs Keisel, there is no question the defensive-line room has changed dramatically since Heyward joined it after the Steelers took him in the first round of the 2011 draft.

Gone from it are Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke.

And it doesn’t look promising that Keisel will return, though the Steelers could re-sign him in June to provide depth at a position where they are perilously thin.

So much turnover along the defensive line has followed a period in which the Steelers experienced very little of it.

Heyward proved last season with his stellar play that he can fill the void at defensive end. He showed Tuesday that he is also capable of becoming a leader in the mold of his predecessors with a telling comment.

When asked if the transition on the defensive side of the ball has gone smoothly, Heyward said, “If it was smooth we would have been winning championships. We’re just trying to be an honest group and make sure everybody’s accountable. That’s our main goal this offseason.”

One of the Steelers’ biggest priorities is shoring up a run defense that yielded 115.6 rushing yards per game last season and one key to that will be filling the hole opposite Heyward and getting better play from nose tackle Steve McLendon.

Heyward expects McLendon to emerge in his second season as a full starter and become a force in the middle of the line.

"I’m expecting a lot out of Steve," Heyward said. "He’s struggled with some injuries (in 2013) but that’s part of the game. He’s definitely grown a lot and he sees his mistakes and definitely wants to be the best he can be.”

Heyward, who led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures last season, said he expects Cam Thomas, who signed with the Steelers last month, to fill Al Woods' role and play both nose tackle and end.

As for younger players who could step up at defensive end, Heyward said second-year man Brian Arnfelt could contribute this season. Arnfelt, a former undrafted free agent who spent most of last season on the practice squad, played the final two games of 2013.

“He’s put in a lot of work this offseason, been here almost every day with me,” Heyward said “Him being around guys like Brett Keisel and Ziggy (Hood) he got to learn a lot and every day through practice you saw Brian get better. You could see at practices toward the end of the year that he was really starting to strive and make a lot of progress.”