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Time for Steelers defensive end Heyward to step up his game

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 6:33 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward brings down the Chargers' Danario Alexander on Dec. 9, 2012 at Heinz Field.

Cam Heyward figures he'll soon have to face one inescapable, if not inevitable, reality.

At some point this season, he must prove to the Steelers that they invested wisely two years ago when they selected him in the first round of the NFL Draft.

He, too, finds himself in the unenviable position of being labeled a bust if he doesn't improve on the rather pedestrian numbers he put up the past two seasons.

The third-year defensive end has progressed slowly. The Steelers, it seems, are waiting patiently to see if Heyward still has value and the potential that ultimately will influence where he lands on the depth chart.

The Ohio State product begins his third season amid a cloud of uncertainty.

He isn't likely to supplant Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel in the starting lineup, but he can dictate how much playing time he'll get — and how his future will be shaped.

“I'm confident he's going to prove he's ready to contribute in a big way this season,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “We're going to need a lot of our young players to perform for us to get back to the playoffs.”

He knows what he has to do when training camp begins July 26 at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

It's time to prove he can be a force in the trenches, particularly with nose tackle Casey Hampton gone and an aging Keisel playing fewer downs for a defense that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season.

Two-and-a-half sacks over two years didn't cut it. And 26 solo tackles in 31 games falls far short of what was expected from the 31st overall pick in 2011.

“I set high expectations for myself every year,” the 6-foot-5, 288-pound Heyward said. “It doesn't mean I hit them, but I'll like to be in the ballpark.

“I'll say I'm where I want to be in the sense that I feel like I'm capable of doing big things. I've got to show my teammates that I can get the job done.”

The Steelers will need Heyward to resemble the player who tormented offenses in the Big Ten. He'll need to be more than a serviceable run-stopper now that Hampton and linebacker James Harrison are gone.

“It's different without Casey and Harrison. (Hampton) wasn't the most athletic, but he's the guy who kept the team together,” Heyward said.

“He was the glue that brought guys together. It's definitely different around here.”

Heyward is likely to get more chances to bolster his numbers and strengthen his resume this upcoming season, especially with and aging Keisel suffering through a series of nagging aches and pains.

Heyward, too, will be looking to define his role in Dick LeBeau's defense.

His scant body of work leaves some doubt about his ability as a pass-rusher and run-stopper.

“It's hard to define my role right now, but we'll see as the season rolls around,” Heyward said. “I have to be a player on this team who contributes in multiple ways. It doesn't matter if it's special teams or defensive line.

“I have to be a two-way player. If I want to be strictly a pass-rusher, then I'm in the wrong place. We want to stop the run first, but I want to be that guy in the nickel who gets that push.”

“I got into a little bit of rhythm last year, and it helped save Keisel and Ziggy physically,” Heyward said. “The best experience is game time.”

LeBeau and Timmons are looking for Heyward to be more assertive during the preseason.

“I have the athletic ability, so it's a matter of putting technique and ability together,” Heyward said. “Then, I have to transfer that onto the field.

“I have to come to work every day and leave no questions about my effort. When my number gets called this season, I have to be ready.

“I want to be consistent. I want to have one great play followed by another great play,” he said. “I can't have too many bad plays, not if I want to gain the confidence of the coaches.”

Admittedly, Heyward didn't meet all his goals last season.

“It was almost a loss because I didn't meet all the goals I wanted,” he said. “I need to have a productive training camp, so we can get this thing running.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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