PITTSBURGH --- At 34 years old in his 13th NFL season, Cameron Heyward is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
That’s the reality of playing in the NFL.
With at least 10 sacks in each of the last two years, the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive captain and perennial Pro Bowler wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down prior to the groin injury that landed him on the Injured Reserve list, but NFL careers don’t last forever -- certainly not for physical maulers like the former first-rounder. Heyward, who has two years left on his current contract, even admitted in the offseason that his end-of-season reflections are getting longer as the end of his career inches closer.
“Reflection period was long for me,” Heyward said in June. “It's just understanding that I got more years in the tank. I'm excited to keep attacking it and trying to figure out this puzzle to win a Super Bowl.”
But even if Heyward, who will likely return later this season, has more years in the tank, the Steelers are getting a taste of the post-Heyward life earlier than anticipated, beginning this week with the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football.
“It's definitely the next generation up,” second-year defensive end DeMarvin Leal said this week.
Though the intangibles of Heyward’s leadership and experience are difficult to replicate, the Steelers have been thoughtfully preparing for his eventual departure through the draft and free agency for several years.
“We did add a lot of depth, and I think that's where these guys now have an opportunity to prove themselves and to see if they can step up to the challenge,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “We like what we have, but until they get in the games for an extended period of time, we won't know. But we like the young guys we have and we'll see how they respond.”
Leal, selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2022 NFL draft, played 25 defensive snaps in Sunday’s loss, though he was also playing through a triceps injury sustained in-game. Leal is one of three defensive lineman drafted by the Steelers in the last three years, joining 2021 fifth-rounder Isaiahh Loudermilk and 2023 second-rounder Keeanu Benton. In addition to adding to the position through the draft, the Steelers signed defensive end Larry Ogunjobi in 2022 and extended him this offseason and added veteran nose tackle Breiden Fehoko and defensive end Armon Watts prior to training camp.
Throughout the month-long stay in Latrobe, the defensive line was among the most competitive position groups, an observation reinforced on cut-down day.
“They ended up [keeping] seven of us, and I think that was a compliment for us on how hard we worked in camp and the type of talent we have in the room. So I think we'll be prepared for [not having Heyward].
And in addition to the seven on the active roster, the Steelers also kept Fehoko close by in signing him to the practice squad. As a veteran, Heyward played only 10 snaps in the preseason, all coming in the second game, giving the younger players more crucial reps together.
“The group that's going to be out there this Monday is a group that we were playing in the preseason together,” Loudermilk said. “We have that comfortability with each other. We've played multiple games now, so we have a feel with each other. We're comfortable.”
Ryan Clark is disappointed in what he saw from Kenny Pickett and the Steelers in their Week 1 loss to the 49ers.
Just a couple of years ago, the Steelers struggled with depth on the defensive line after the extended absence and surprise retirement of Stephon Tuitt following the 2021 death of his brother in a hit-and-run crash. When Tuitt was placed on injured reserve to start the 2021 season, the Steelers were thin at the position and had to lean on a combination of former Raven Chris Wormley, one-time practice squad defensive tackle Henry Mondeaux, and then-rookie Loudermilk. The thin group up front contributed to the Steelers having the worst rushing defense in the league in 2021.
That’s less of a concern this time around.
“We have that depth here now, and you saw during camp there was a battle for certain spots, and it was a battle between people who can play,” Loudermilk said. “Having something like this happen is not a good thing for us, but it is a good thing that we have that depth. We can have the next man up, but without worrying about ‘is he going to get the job done,’ because I think everyone who we have right now can get the job done.”
That confidence is crucial, especially facing Browns running back Nick Chubb, whose performance is often a bellwether in this series. The Steelers are 5-0-1 when Chubb rushes for fewer than 80 yards and 0-3 when he tops that mark. A week ago, the Steelers allowed running back Christian McCaffrey to run for 152 yards. Facing Chubb a week after losing Heyward is like taking a final exam after two weeks of a semester-long class, but the Steelers feel like they’ve done enough studying to pass a difficult test.
“I think for us the biggest thing is just not trying to go out there and be Cam,” veteran defensive end Armon Watts said. “... Just do our job and as long as we're in our gaps doing what we do, I think we can handle Chubb. Obviously credit to him, he's a great back. He knows how to read defenses, knows what holes to hit, which ones not to hit, and it'll be a good battle for sure.”