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Steelers' Heyward ready to contribute in 2nd season

| Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012, 10:32 p.m.
Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward plays against the Panthers on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, at Heinz Field. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Cam Heyward has a bad attitude — on the field, anyway.

The Steelers' second-year defensive end couldn't resist leaping into the fray of any dispute during training camp. Instinctively, it seemed, he dumped gasoline instead of water on every fire.

“Cam is always in a fight,” guard Ramon Foster said. “But that's just him. I'm glad to have him on my side because I know he's not going to back down.

“You can't tell him to calm down. I don't want to change that about him.”

Heyward ended up in the middle of most skirmishes at St. Vincent College. It began with guard Willie Colon. It continue with former Ohio State teammate and rookie tackle Mike Adams and then again with rookie guard Kelvin Beachum.

Heyward challenged them all, sometimes without provocation.

It's not about flexing his muscles or proving he's tough enough. It's about intimidation.

“I don't think the fights ever stopped,” Heyward said. “I'm a different person on the field. I leave it on the field because after that I'm done.

“I've always been a guy involved in skirmishes. I guess I've got a temper problem.”

It's just a facade, really, said nose tackle Steve McLendon.

“Cam really doesn't have an attitude problem,” McLendon said. “He just likes to play fast. He gives it everything, and if you don't like it, you better get out of the way.”

Heyward spun his wheels throughout much of his rookie campaign in 2011. He couldn't gain much traction, partly because he struggled to adjust to complex blocking schemes after three years of tormenting Big Ten linemen.

Admittedly, he intimidated no one.

A quicker, stronger Heyward possesses far more confidence as the Steelers prepare for their regular-season opener Sunday against Denver at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“It's been a good start, but there are a number of things I can improve on, including better technique, taking better steps and using my hands more often,” Heyward said. “It's a lot better than last year.”

Heyward, like other young players on last year's roster, was adversely affected by a lockout that erased OTAs and minicamp. He progressed some but not enough to have a significant impact on an aging defensive front that lost nose tackle Casey Hampton and end Brett Keisel in a 29-23 overtime defeat to the Broncos in an AFC wild-card game in January.

Heyward spent part of the offseason workouts catching up. He focused primarily on using good extension while pass rushing and getting comfortable with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's playbook.

“I'm more in-tune and not thinking on the field, and I'm playing faster,” Heyward said. “I'm much more violent with my hands, and I'm staying tight on blocks but staying in my gap.”

Heyward, who missed the preseason opener at Philadelphia with a sore back, didn't do much against Indianapolis or Buffalo. But he was an intimidating presence in the preseason finale against Carolina.

He showed signs of the player coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert envisioned when they made him the team's No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. His stat line against the Panthers was overshadowed by how he collapsed the pocket or neutralized blockers to funnel running backs to linebackers — a prerequisite skill for the Steelers, considering safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu had a combined 190 tackles last season.

“We're taking the challenge to be an impenetrable force up front,” Heyward said. “We don't want to make our DBs our leading tacklers again.”

The Steelers had the top-ranked defense last season despite a rather uninspiring performance by the defensive front. But its weaknesses were exposed by the Broncos, as quarterback Tim Tebow avoided only token pressure to make big plays in the passing game, including an 80-yard, game-winning touchdown pass on the first play of overtime.

The expectations are greater for Heyward this season. Perhaps there's no greater challenge than facing quarterback Peyton Manning in the opener.

“If there's high expectations, so be it,” Heyward said. “I have my own high expectations. I have to live up to those.”

Heyward figures he has a fighting chance of proving he can deliver. No longer is he buoyed by a sterling college reputation. His performance — good, bad or indifferent — is no longer overshadowed by pedigree: his late father and Pitt star Craig “Ironhead” Heyward.

“Cam doesn't talk about what he's going to do; he just does it,” Foster said. “He is definitely getting his own identity as he wants to be perceived. There's always going to be a comparison between him and his dad. He can't get past that, but he's making a name for himself.”

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

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