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Heyward-Bey has embraced role as veteran among Steelers WRs

| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, 9:54 p.m.

Darrius Heyward-Bey said Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler likes to tell players that football will humble you early or humble you late. Even though he plays on offense, Heyward-Bey gets the point, with one exception.

“I was humbled in the middle,” he said.

Such candor acknowledges a once-bumpy NFL career for the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft out of Maryland, a controversial choice by the Oakland Raiders from the start because of his good-speed, bad-hands reputation.

Heyward-Bey said he has learned a lot about life and life in the NFL since. He has accepted it all and diversified his skills.

“I'm a team-first guy” he said. “Whatever the team needs to me to do I'm willing to do, and I take pride in that.”

At heart, however, he remains an experienced pass-catcher who can zip past defenders, which might be useful given Antonio Brown's uncertain status for Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game in Denver. Sidelined with a concussion, Brown again did not practice Thursday.

Heyward-Bey said he will provide whatever is needed.

“Coach (Mike Tomlin) always tells people to always be prepared like you're gonna play,” he said. “We take our job very seriously. I'm always gonna play a role, either on special teams or offense. I always step in there, ready to go. When my name's called to make a play, I try to make it.”

Heyward-Bey has 21 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns, modest totals behind the larger numbers posted by Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. His last 100-yard game was on New Year's Day in 2012. He is a mainstay on special teams, covering kicks instead of returning them and doing other dirty work.

Nevertheless, if defenses blink, they might miss him. With Bryant missing the first five games because of suspension and an injury, Heyward-Bey had a 43-yard reception against New England in the opener and catches of 41 and 35 yards (for a touchdown) the next week against San Francisco. In the last regular-season game, he beat the Cleveland secondary with a 66-yard reception, his longest since 2010.

“He's still one of the fastest players in the NFL, to this day,” Bryant said.

In 2013, Heyward-Bey left Oakland after four seasons and replaced the injured Reggie Wayne with the Indianapolis Colts, starting 11 games. He signed with the Steelers the next year, having re-tooled himself and his ambitions. He received another one-year contract last spring.

“Being a starter for five years in the league and then having to run off on kickoffs and be a gunner, it's real humbling,” he said. “But I knew coming here that's what I would have to do to make the team. If I wasn't willing to do that, I wouldn't have shown up on the first day.”

In his seventh season, Heyward-Bey, who was knocked cold by then-Steelers safety Ryan Mundy during a game in 2012, is the senior receiver on the club. At 28, he enjoys calling himself “the oldest.” He said he likes being the type of teammate he lacked in Oakland, “a veteran guy that guys can lean on.”

“Some of the young guys look up to him,” Bryant said. “He shows them how to work, and he helps them develop their work ethic.”

“That's kind of the role coach Tomlin put me in,” Heyward-Bey said. “He said, ‘Hey, man, you're the oldest guy. Hold this room down.' That's kind of what I do. I kind of make sure the seat belts are on.”

You know, like with kids.

“Make sure everything's good,” he explained. “And I embrace that role.”

Bob Cohn is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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