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."