PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The ball slammed to the ground to end a spirited Pittsburgh Steelers minicamp and Cameron Heyward sprang to his feet.
It wasn’t just the joy of reaching the end of four sometimes tedious weeks of organized team activities. The Steelers defensive end actually kind of enjoys the deep dive into football minutiae and wasn’t even on the field Thursday for the last play before training camp begins July 25.
Heyward still took a gleeful victory lap, making sure the guys in gold jerseys knew they had done their jobs.
For a defense in the final stages of a makeover following the departure of longtime fixtures Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel and Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Heyward represents the leading edge of the next wave. And he knows it.
The quiet, almost painfully demure rookie in 2011 has evolved into one of the new leaders of a youth movement that started in earnest when he was drafted. Heyward is eager for the responsibility.
“Most of these guys have their heads on right,” Heyward said. “It’s just helping them understand the game is quicker in certain situations, help them be ready for certain moments.”
It’s the least Heyward can do. He spent the first years of his career the willing apprentice to players like Keisel and Aaron Smith. Now that they’re gone, Heyward is the one dishing out advice and setting the tone everywhere from meeting rooms to the huddle.
“He definitely is next in line,” said second-year end Stephon Tuitt. “We all look up to him to become better.”
Heyward had the luxury of biding his time before being tasked with making an impact. He didn’t become a regular until his third year in 2013. By last fall, Heyward was one of the few consistent bright spots on a defense that struggled to make the splash plays head coach Mike Tomlin covets. Heyward set a career high and tied for the team lead with 7 1/2 sacks and new defensive coordinator Keith Butler believes more success is coming. It’s why Butler is working on schemes that would give Heyward and Tuitt more freedom to just go get the ball rather than force him to eat up blockers so Heyward’s teammates can run loose.
“We have to let them play football too,” Butler said.
The message makes sense to Heyward.
“There’s no thinking about letting the play get past you,” Heyward said. “It’s `Let’s not let it get to that level.’ I think it’s a level of confidence and level of assertiveness that we need to have.”
One the Steelers have lacked over the last few seasons as Pittsburgh’s sacks and turnovers created went down and its yards allowed went up. Way up. By Heyward’s math, the Steelers need to create three sacks a game to become one of the league’s best pass rushing teams, a number the team reached consistently when it went to three Super Bowls in six seasons between 2005-2010.
“When we were leading, we were high 40s, low 50s (on the season),” Heyward said.
Heyward said he doesn’t care how many of those sacks he personally tallies.
“If I can become a double-digit sack guy or just take up a lot of attention so other guys get pressure, that’s fine,” he said. “The front seven has to dominate and we all have to be a part of it. We have to be interchangeable.”
Maybe, though Heyward is more invaluable than interchangeable. The 26-year-old is the longest-tenured defensive end on the team. He’s also entering the option year of his rookie contract. While Heyward isn’t getting ahead of himself given the always uncertain nature of the league, few teams hold onto their own like the Steelers. That’s fine by Heyward, whose father Craig was a star running back in college at Pitt in the 1980s before a lengthy NFL career of his own.
Craig Heyward bounced around the league. His son has no such plans.
While some of his other teammates just rent home in Pittsburgh and live elsewhere, Heyward bought a house in the suburbs early in his career. Don’t expect to see a “For Sale” sign up anytime soon, not with a defense to help rebuild and a Super Bowl to go chase.
“Obviously I have family connections and I would love to be here,” Heyward said. “But I can’t control that. All I can do is go play.”
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