Steelers' Cam Heyward makes positive impact on defensive line
It might not reflect on the stat sheet, but defensive end Cam Heyward has become an integral part of the Steelers' defense.
The former first-round draft pick got off to a slow start during his first two seasons as he tried to settle into a role that often changed. He has become more effective now that his job is clearly defined.
Dick LeBeau, the Steelers' defensive coordinator, has asked — and sometimes demanded —that Heyward capitalize on his strength and quickness to flush quarterbacks out of the pocket.
More important, Heyward has gained the confidence of the coaching staff. He's been tossed into the fray to spell starters Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel, who are part of a rotation designed to save their legs during the second half of physically demanding games.
“With Cam coming in, it takes a lot of pressure off us knowing that we don't have to play 50 or possibly 70 snaps a game,” Hood said. “We have guys who can keep us fresh, and there won't be a drop off.”
Heyward, who has been on the field nearly half of the Steelers' 132 defensive snaps, has a stiff challenge awaiting him Sunday night at Heinz Field when the Steelers (0-2) face the Chicago Bears (2-0).
The Bears' offensive line, which includes rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, has allowed quarterback Jay Cutler to be sacked just once. As a result, Cutler has had plenty of time to spot receiver Brandon Marshall downfield.
The residual effect of Cutler's consistency and near-flawless play is that defenses are hesitant to crowd the line scrimmage to stop running back Matt Forte.
The Steelers are counting on Heyward to defend the run and pressure Cutler. There were signs of growth during Monday's 20-10 loss to Cincinnati, as he applied constant pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton.
“It's helped that guys like Ziggy and (linebacker) Lawrence (Timmons) have shown me how to play in this defense,” Heyward said. “I've benefited from their input, so now I feel like I can contribute.
“I'm not just trying to take up space on the field. I don't want to be a letdown when I get in there. I do feel more confident this year, and I'm in lot better shape than I've been in the past.”
Heyward has been an asset the first two games, considering the defense has spent plenty of time on the field, especially in the grueling fourth quarter when mental and physical fatigue sometimes sets in.
“Coach (LeBeau) talked to us about that because he wants us to be fresh going into fourth quarter, as well as the back part of our schedule,” said Heyward, who is tied with cornerback William Gay with a team-high two passes defended. “None of our guys need to be playing that many snaps. If we can get off the field it's going to help.
“But we need to force teams into tougher third downs and stop the run. I think the rotation we have with guys like Steve (McLendon) and Al (Woods), it's going to make us better because we'll be injury free.”
For now, the Ohio State product is a dependable backup. However, he was in on more than half the defensive snaps against the Bengals.
“It feels better than standing on the sidelines,” said Heyward, whose four quarterback pressures are second to Keisel's five.
Timmons said few have out-worked Heyward this season.
“He has all the intangibles to be a great player and it always showed in practices,” Timmons said. “But now it's showing up in games.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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