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Kevin Gorman: Cameron Heyward motivated to lead Steelers' defense

Kevin Gorman
| Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, 10:00 p.m.

HOUSTON

Cameron Heyward had no shortage of motivation to beat the Houston Texans, whether it was his Pro Bowl snub or the Steelers clinching a bye in the AFC playoffs.

“All of the above,” Heyward said. “Just keep stirring the pot. It doesn't matter what it is. I'm going to find some motivation. If you're not motivated at this time, you're in the wrong sport.”

The Texans were on the wrong side of Heyward, who had four tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Steelers' 34-6 victory at NRG Stadium on Christmas.

Heyward has a dozen sacks on the season, two short of Keith Willis' 1983 record for a defensive lineman. Not bad for someone who essentially is a tackle in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme, just not good enough to be picked for the Pro Bowl.

Not that Heyward needed the snub for a spark. He has played at a high level all season, as this was his eighth game with a sack, his third with at least two sacks.

“He's always motivated,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “Maybe that gave him some extra fire, but I think he did a great job of not letting that get to him and just playing his type of ball.

“That's how he always plays. It's not shocking to us. That's just how he is.”

Heyward is now the unquestioned leader of this Steelers defense, with the release of James Harrison.

Not only is Heyward an outspoken leader, but the defensive captain is as respected in the Steelers' locker room as he is on the playing field.

Heyward was “pretty surprised” by the release Saturday of Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. It left Ben Roethlisberger as the lone remaining Steeler from the Super Bowl XL champions.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin refused to speculate if Harrison would return, and Heyward was among the Steelers defenders who weren't sure if it marked the end of Harrison's tenure with the team.

“You don't know what's going to happen in the future. I'm not a general manager. I can't really answer that,” Heyward said. “But James is a heck of a teammate. You just don't know when your time is going to be called, so you stay ready and just keep playing. Hopefully, we can bring him back.”

Harrison served as role model for the Steelers, through his tireless work ethic in the weight room and serving, as Heyward called him, “a rock we can lean on, a guy who has experienced a lot. Now Will Gay's that guy.”

No, Heyward's that guy.

In the next breath, he talked about the Steelers continued growth as a defense. There is still much room to grow, especially if the Steelers want to win a seventh Super Bowl.

Despite throwing a sack party, the Steelers allowed the Texans to rush for 176 yards, on an average of 6.3 per carry. Alfred Blue ran for 108 yards on 16 carries, breaking a 48-yarder.

That was the Steelers' undoing in defeats to the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars. But the Texans, with a patchwork line and a third-string quarterback in T.J. Yates, provided no threat in the pass game until the fourth quarter.

The Steelers know how important it is to earn the first-round bye, as it could allow All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown's calf injury to heal.

“That's part of the recipe of being a Super Bowl champion,” Heyward said. “I know we've got a lot of football to be played, but getting healthy, getting hot, now we've just got to go out there and do what we're supposed to do.”

The Steelers know what they have in Heyward, especially after not having him for the second half of last season because of a torn pectoral muscle.

Even injured, he was a leader.

“We know that's transitioning to him, and he's been using that role the best way you possibly can as a role model to a lot of people,” Tuitt said, “especially me.”

Nickel cornerback Mike Hilton might have been the defensive star of the day, with the first of the Steelers' seven sacks and three total, but even he acknowledged the pressure starts up front with Heyward.

“We know he's one of the best defensive linemen in the league,” Hilton said. “He might have got snubbed, but he goes out and proves that he's one of the top defensive linemen.”

Heyward called his season “open-ended,” as he has much to prove with his performance.

“This is the time everybody waits for,” he said. “This is the time where dreams are made and dreams are broken. We'll see you in the playoffs.”

Motivated by all of the above.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

The Steelers' Cameron Heyward hits Texans quarterback T.J. Yates after he fumbled in the fourth quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Cameron Heyward hits Texans quarterback T.J. Yates after he fumbled in the fourth quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward signals to the fans as he leaves the field after beating the Texans, 34-6, on Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward signals to the fans as he leaves the field after beating the Texans, 34-6, on Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
The Steelers' Cameron Heyward puts a hit on Texans running back Lamar Miller in the second quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Cameron Heyward puts a hit on Texans running back Lamar Miller in the second quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
The Steelers' Cameron Heyward pressures Texans quarterback T.J. Yates in the second quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Cameron Heyward pressures Texans quarterback T.J. Yates in the second quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
The Steelers' Cameron Heyward sacks Texans quarterback T.J. Yates in the second quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Cameron Heyward sacks Texans quarterback T.J. Yates in the second quarter Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston.
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