Cameron Heyward Could Be Steelers Biggest Role Player On Defense In 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward might be entering his second season, but the last few weeks of OTA sessions have been his first thanks to the lockout last year. Heyward, the Steelers first round draft pick out of Ohio State last year, saw just 246 snaps last season as a rookie with 49 of those coming in the AFC Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos after starter Brett Keisel went down with a groin injury.

With Keisel now recovered, and former first round pick Ziggy Hood slated to start on the left side, Heyward will likely have to wait until he makes his first NFL start, but that is not to say that he will not get a lot of opportunities to make plays in his second season. Heyward was asked on 93.7 The Fan last week just how comfortable he is now in the defense and how big of jump he expects to make this upcoming season. Heyward replied, “Oh I feel a lot more comfortable. My confidence has rose, just because I feel comfortable in the defense and I\’m expecting a better result. You know, I\’m going into this season with high hopes and just get out there and prove myself and just go from there.”

That comfort level that Heyward has will likely allow him to get several snaps on both the left and right side in 2012 as he spells both Keisel and Hood throughout the season. The Steelers are not shy about rotating out players on the defensive line, especially on long drives, and even Keisel said himself this past week that he will likely need to be spelled more this year. Keisel said in his interview on 105 The X this past week about Heyward, “He\’s got to be ready be to go. He\’s got to be the guy that\’s versatile, that can play all three positions – knows all the nickel and dime – he\’s got to be that guy you know. I\’m getting older. I\’m going to need a few spells during the game. He\’s got be that guy that can come in and be reliable and be accountable.”

Heyward downplayed all the talk this past week about him having a bigger role this year as he was quoted as saying last week, “I haven\’t even worried about that, I\’m just trying to get better out here. I\’ll let my play show it off and continue to improve.” He also added in regard to how important the OTA sessions are to him this year, “I think it\’s vital. For me to take in the playbook a lot more and learn from my mistakes and take time to shine up and oil up and learn my technique and get better at it.”

So how much playing time should we expect Heyward to get this year? Keep in mind that Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke are gone now and that there is a good chance that Casey Hampton could start the season on the PUP list. Despite both Hoke and Hampton being nose tackles, it was not uncommon for either to get a snap every now and again in the nickel. Hoke also was more than capable of playing left defensive end to spell Hood or Smith at times over the past few years in addition. Steve McLendon will likely be the week one starter at nose tackle with Hampton down, and although he too can play the three, four and five technique should the need arise, the Steelers will likely try to keep him as fresh as possible being as he will be backed up by rookie Alameda Ta\’amu initially until Hampton is 100%. Considering all of the above, Heyward should easily see 500 snaps in 2012, and that number could easily grow depending on injuries of course.

Behind Heyward there figures to be no real experience by the time the 53 man roster is set, so just as Keisel said, he\’s got to be ready to go at all times and must be versatile. While he might not be a starter yet, he is likely one of the most important role players on the Steelers defense heading into the 2012 season. Keisel certainly thinks Heyward is up for the job as he said last week, “I believe in him, I do. I feel like he\’s the type of guy that has the type of character that\’s going to come in and keep the ship rolling in the right direction.”

  • Intropy

    I think Hood’s name is written in pencil at the LDE spot, and Heyward showed better in his snaps last year that Hood did, and I would not be surprised to see Heyward win that camp battle. It’s Hood’s spot to lose, but he very well could.

  • Jprankster2005

    I agree 100 percent……. I think Ta’amu and Heyward both will be important, With heyward being even more important……. There will be injuries I’m sure, And I think Ta’amu will also get some snaps not nearly as many as Heyward but he will play, And when they do they need to make the most of it……. Bryant will probably be the other DE that makes the team not sure there’s really anyone that sticks out that could be a wild card to make the team…..


    As always, the backup’s backup battle will be interesting this year. If any of the starting rotation suffers a prolonged injury early in the season, who then becomes that ‘extra guy.’

  • LucasY59

    Ikponmwusa Igbinosun could be the wild card, but I think if anyone has a chance to push Bryant for the last D-Line roster spot it would be Al Woods. I think Bryant will be the one to win it, but any of the 3 I listed wont be active on Sunday unless there are injuries

  • Hbradish

    There have been very good things said about McLendon from the coaches and players. Especially Pouncey who said he could barely move McLendon who is also very active.
    327 lbs now, not the oft repeated 280. A big positive surprise coming!

    Also word is Ziggy is a dedicated monster in the weight room and is going to be another big surprise as to his development. I think he’s already shown super potential.

    Everyone knows how much TEAM means to the Steelers and it looks like the team is going to continue to be just that. A lot of other teams, coaches and fans envy that special and very important factor which the Steelers have a patent on.

    I see big and bigger thing the next few years.

  • SteelSpine

    Since his dad was Ironhead, will anyone call him “Steelhead”.

    Tho on paper Ziggy’s probly starter currently based on time on squad, I dont think Ziggy has earned any starting position, so wouldnt surprise me to see Heyward or anyone beat out Hood. I gotta soft spot for Ziggy because he was known as a hard worker, & I understand takes time to learn LeBeau’s defense well, & DEs in LeBeau’s 3-4 dont make alotta big plays, but 1st round pick Hood in 1st 2 seasons I had expected woulda had more impact than Hood has had. If Hood had been a FA or later round pick, then I’d be fine with the amount of impact gotten outta Hood. After Keisel got hurt last year, it was a big dropoff (tho I know Hoke was out too).

  • SteelerDave

    I think we all saw glimpses of how good Heyward can be last season. In my view, Ziggy would make the better back-up and is more built to play both LDE and RDE as primarily a run stopper. Heyward has more natural ability to shed blocks and apply pressure to the QB than Ziggy from both spots. All that said, if Heyward does not beat out Ziggy for the starting spot then I think dedicating himself to learning everything he can from Keisel and will be an excellent player when he does take over for Keisel in the future.

    The biggest loss is no Smith in the locker room and in the film room. His retirement will be felt by both Ziggy and Heyward the most.

  • Fish

    A lot of Steelers fans are not high on Ziggy for some reason. Maybe I’m blind to his weaknesses because I like the guy, but I think he does exactly what they want a DE to do and does it well. Is it just because he doesn’t sack the Quarterback all the time? That’s not what they want them to do. Once Ziggy is done with his responsibilities on the play, he releases just fine and gets after the quarterback, just doesn’t happen that often. Cam is going to be great as well but he’s a different type of player right now from Ziggy because of their body types and you can’t really compare them to one another. I see Cam coming in this season on obvious passing plays and getting after it while giving the other guy’s a blow, while getting another year under his belt. Between the two of them were going to be very solid going forward.