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Steelers' Cam Heyward hankering for big season after injury-plagued 2016

Joe Rutter
| Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, 7:06 p.m.
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward speaks with other defensive lineman during practice , Aug.9, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward speaks with other defensive lineman during practice , Aug.9, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward goes through drills during practice , Aug.9, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward goes through drills during practice , Aug.9, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward goes through during practice , Aug.9, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward goes through during practice , Aug.9, 2017 at St. Vincent College.

Cam Heyward would like to point out a discrepancy in his bio contained in the Steelers media guide.

It's the part that says the veteran defensive end is entering his seventh NFL season.

Technically, what is printed in black and white is correct. Heyward, though, would like to erase his 2016 season from existence.

“I don't count last year because I got injured too much,” Heyward said. “This is my sixth season, and we'll go from there.”

Although the 2016 season was a memorable one for the Steelers, what with the regular-season ending seven-game winning streak, AFC North title and trip to the conference championship game, it was largely forgettable for the team's 6-foot-5, 295-pound defensive captain.

After not missing a game during a streak that extended to high school, Heyward played in only seven of 19 games (including playoffs). He missed two games because of a hamstring injury, then had his season end abruptly because of a pectoral injury suffered against the Dallas Cowboys.

In his absence, the Steelers made their deepest run in the playoffs since 2010, extending their winning streak to nine games before being ousted a game short of the Super Bowl by the New England Patriots.

During that run, Heyward was a constant presence around the team, serving as equal parts motivational leader and de facto assistant coach. But not being able to contribute on the field weighed heavily on him.

“He was always around and definitely took on the role of verbal leader and was mentally helping guys, but we knew it was hurting him not to be out there,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “Now that he's back out there, you can tell he appreciates it that much more because it was taken away from him.”

Heyward, 28, stamped his return Friday night in the preseason opener against the New York Giants by starting at defensive end and logging 23 snaps through four series. He had a tackle for loss and a pass defensed before leaving early in the second quarter.

“It was good to knock off some rust,” Heyward said. “It was exciting. I'll be a little more excited when it's the regular season, but to get to this point I'm pretty happy because it was a long offseason for me.”

When Heyward was placed on injured reserve in November, he started preparing for his inevitable return. After the season, he trained daily with Moats at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and was cleared to participate in organized team activities in May.

“You could tell he was hungry to be back, the way he was putting in the time in the weight room and lifting heavier weights,” Moats said. “In OTAs, he was back to doing Cam-like things, chasing players all over the field, making plays in the backfield.

“That's him.”

The OTAs and ensuing three-day minicamp in June, however, couldn't totally whet Heyward's appetite. Those were unpadded practices, and hitting was taboo.

Heyward didn't truly get to grade his return until the third workout at St. Vincent when pads were added and tackling began in full force. The next step was playing in a game, which he did Friday.

“We go against a great offense every day (in practice), but you don't get to hit the quarterback,” Heyward said. “It's one game. We're not going to go crazy about it, but it's a good start.”

Coming off the first significant injury of his career, Heyward could be forgiven for feeling anxious about getting hit by 300-pound offensive linemen for the first time in nine months.

“It's different when you're training than when you're pressing and pushing against guys,” said Moats, who suffered a similar pectoral injury in the playoff loss in Denver after the 2015 season. “You can mentally tell now that he's a lot more confident. I feel he's going to play at an extremely high level this year.”

Heyward had 14 12 combined sacks over the 2014-15 seasons. All three of his sacks last season came in an October win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The next week, he left in the first quarter with a hamstring injury that kept him out for two weeks and began his run of bad fortune.

Heyward's absence forced a defense that included three rookie starters to grow up, particularly on the line. Rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave had to play in more subpackages. Third-year defensive end Stephon Tuitt became the anchor. L.T. Walton and former practice squad player Johnny Maxey had increased roles.

“I had a lot of pressure on me, and Cam knew how that was because when he came in, there were a lot of great players here,” Tuitt said. “It was time for me, my situation. He helped me a lot, got me to open my eyes and see some things. It was a time for me when the defense was in my hands. It was make or break for me, and it was good to have him around to help me through it.”

The Steelers bound together in the second half of the season without their leader.

When Heyward was hurt in the loss to the Cowboys, the Steelers ranked No. 25 in team defense (15th against the run and 28th versus the pass). When they beat the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Day to clinch the division title and the third seed in the playoffs, the defense had improved to No. 9 overall (sixth run, 15th pass).

Tuitt said Heyward stressed accountability from the defensive linemen and knew when to give a pat on the back as well as a kick in the rear end.

“He's not going to be (dealing) with somebody who's not doing their stuff,” Tuitt said. “He's not going to mess with you if you're handling what you're supposed to handle. That's how he was for me.”

In other words, Heyward was acting like a defensive captain, an honor his teammates bestowed upon him the past two seasons.

“How to approach, how to practice, how to get ready for a game, how to lead, how to take control of a game,” Tuitt said, rattling off a list of Heyward's attributes. “He's a great leader for this team. You try to learn things from him because he does everything the right way.”

Nobody was happier than Tuitt to look down the line and see Heyward in a three-point stance this summer.

“To have another dominant player on the other side of me is great,” Tuitt said. “It takes less double teams off you, less pressure off you. As a friend, I'm glad he's back healthy and able to perform.”

All is well with Heyward as he prepares for his seventh (or is it sixth?) season with the Steelers. It's one he won't take for granted.

“Every day,” he said, “means more to me.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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