Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward leads 'on the field'
Since the Steelers' most recent Super Bowl appearance in February 2011, there have been few on-field constants for the organization.
For 88 consecutive meaningful games since Cameron Heyward was drafted 2 ½ months after that Super Bowl XLV, Heyward was one of them. For each of the Steelers' regular season and playoff games since, Heyward was in uniform and a fixture on the Steelers' defensive line.
The final remaining link from the Front 7 dating back to days of Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Larry Foote – Heyward was teammates with them all – Heyward had been a rock in the Steelers defense's lineup.
Until last year, when suddenly he wasn't.
“That,” Heyward said of not being able to play the final 10 games of last season, “was stressful. It's hard to lead from the sideline when you can't hold up your end of the deal.”
Last Sunday, the familiar No. 97 was back on the field and again stretched over Heyward's shoulder pads.
“It felt REAL good,” teammate Ryan Shazier said, “to have him back. Everything felt right again.”
Heyward had a sack and two assisted tackles among his 52 snaps played (79 percent of the Steelers' defensive total) in the season-opening win at Cleveland. As Heyward's efforts often are, it was more workmanlike than flashy. And his return meant more than just the tangible benefits Heyward brought.
“He's just a great guy, a guy who you want around in any situation,” Shazier said. “He always seems to be team-first, and that's the type of guy that you want to be a leader. On and off the field, he continues to take care of the guys and he always works super hard – works his butt off – and gives the best effort he has. And everybody showed him why we feel he should be captain.”
The Steelers' defense has players who are older than Heyward. There are defensive teammates who have more NFL experience, too. There are those on the Steelers' defense are more decorated in terms of Pro Bowl accolades, those who've been drafted higher and those who've had longer tenures with the team.
But when it has come time to elect captains, players have chosen Heyward three consecutive seasons now.
First named a captain at age 26 in 2015, Heyward this season for the first time is the lone captain on defense.
“He's the right guy for it,” said safety Mike Mitchell, the defense's eldest starter at 30.
“He's good guy, he's got the right personality…. He's perfect for it, when you really look at the type of guy he is, everything that he does. He is what you'd call a captain.”
Much of the offseason and even in the lead up to last week's regular season opener, storylines surrounding the Steelers focused on returning offensive players who'd miss various forms of time (Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant) away from the team. On defense, the Steelers debuts of Joe Haden and T.J. Watt and even Mike Hilton seemed to overshadow the return of the man who is the unit's captain and who missed more than half of the prior season because of a torn pectoral muscle suffered in a loss to Dallas on Nov. 13.
Heyward's return was more necessary than initially imagined because just three snaps into the game the Steelers lost their other highly-paid stalwart defensive end, Stephon Tuitt, to injury. With the Steelers down to four healthy defensive linemen in uniform, that might have meant Heyward had to play more than expected.
“I felt like we had a good rotation, and that's something we (strived for),” Heyward said. “It wasn't like I was on a (snap) number count or anything, but I thought we did pretty well when it came to (conditioning).”
Tuitt is listed as questionable to play Sunday in the home opener against Minnesota. If he doesn't play, that could mean Heyward would revert back to his pre-injury form and carry a heavy snaps load. In 2015, he played more snaps than any defensive lineman in the NFL (1,116).
That sure beats the zero that circumstance allowed Heyward to play over the second half of last season. It's a lot harder to serve as a captain that way.
“Even when I was younger, I always wanted to be a leader,” Heyward said. “My mom always said. ‘Don't be a hero' –but that's always all I wanted to be. When I watched TV, I always wanted to be that leader and that guy that sets the tempo. That's just the way I was taught.
“It's nice to be able to do that again while on the field.”