Steelers' Cameron Heyward now listed as a defensive tackle
Twenty-seven rookies, free-agency signing Morgan Burnett and others are foremost of what differentiates the 2018 Steelers’ training camp roster from the roster the team used at the end of last season.
There was one very subtle difference, though, that perhaps could have gone unnoticed – but it concerns one of the Steelers’ highest-profile players.
Reigning All Pro performer, eight-year veteran and defensive captain Cameron Heyward is no longer listed at the position he was drafted at and spent his first seven seasons identified as.
The end has come for Heyward – officially – being classified as an end in the Steelers’ defense. In lieu of “DE,” the team’s official website now lists Heyward’s position as “DT” – defensive tackle.
As recently as the Steelers’ playoff loss to Jacksonville in January, all pre- and postgame literature distributed by the team listed Heyward as a defensive end.
It’s a subtle change that, functionally, means nothing. As Heyward can attest personally, in today’s NFL the lines are increasingly blurred between the traditional defensive line labels of yesteryear.
“I definitely think we have incorporated more 4-3 where we range down the line,” Heyward said Wednesday as he reported to Saint Vincent for the opening of camp. “And as I have grown in the system, I have been asked to do more. But I think it makes myself – and a lot other d-linemen – better, because we are able to be interchangeable.”
Heyward noted Wednesday that starting defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt Javon Hargrave and himself are at times each asked to line up at varying positions. Hargrave, in particular, is no Casey Hampton-esque nose tackle. As great as Hampton was, he pretty much solely lined up directly over the ball; Hargrave has been utilized filling gaps between the centers and guards and even in an alignment outside the guards.
As the NFL gets increasingly pass-friendly, defenses are forever more apt to use five (or more) defensive backs for plays. Most often, the nickel DB comes in at the expense of a defensive lineman.
For the past quarter century for the Steelers, that’s meant the nose tackle; for today’s team, Hargrave is considered a “starter,” but nickel cornerback Mike Hilton played 125 more defensive snaps than Hargrave did last season.
And when the Steelers are in nickel, their alignment typically mirrors that of a 4-3 with purported “ends” Heyward and Tuitt on the inside while the outside linebacker edge rushers often act as de facto ends at the line of scrimmage.
Whether that’s a 4-3 or a subpackage in the 3-4 is up for interpretation and, frankly, trivial. Where it became relevant to Heyward , though, was when it came time for the Pro Bowl rosters and All Pro teams to be announced.
Despite a career-high 12 sacks last season, Heyward was initially snubbed for the AFC Pro Bowl team (he’d eventually be added to the team weeks later ).
Somewhat paradoxically, Heyward was part of the AP All Pro team when it was announced two weeks later. The All Pro team takes both conferences into account – but a change in recent years to the positional designations allowed Heyward to be part of the “Interior Linemen” category.
In short, officially listing Heyward as a defensive tackle figures to garner him more recognition across the league. The lot of NFL “defensive ends” includes 4-3 types that rack up sacks and, in turn, accolades.
Regardless of labels, Heyward enters this training camp coming off a much different season that he did when he showed up to Saint Vincent last year, when he missed nine games because of injury – to date still the only game absences of his career.
“I shouldn’t be on any rehab list (this year),” Heyward said with a smile. “But I still view it as I have got something to prove every year, so I am looking forward to it.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.