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Don\’t Bet On Steelers DE Cameron Heyward Opening The Season As A Starter

With Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward now entering his third season in the league, many believe that he will open the 2013 season as a starter, but I wouldn\’t be so quick to bet on that happening.

Even though Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posted this week in his online chat that he\’s been told Heyward is already better than starting left defensive end Ziggy Hood, and that he will be given an opportunity to unseat Hood in training camp, the fact remains that Heyward is probably best suited to play on the right side which is currently being manned by veteran Brett Keisel.

Now, there\’s no doubt that Hood has yet to fully live up to his first-round expectations, but with that being said, Heyward still only saw just shy of 270 snaps on defense in 2012, and that number would\’ve likely been about 30 snaps less had Hood not suffered a lower back injury in the Week 11 game last season against the Baltimore Ravens.

Did we see progress from Heyward late in the 2012 season? Yes, we did, but we also saw Hood play better in the last quarter of the season as well. Will Heyward see the field a lot more in 2013? I would think so, as the Steelers will most likely want to save the wear and tear on Keisel, who despite coming off one of his better seasons, will turn 35 in September.

Like Keisel, Hood is entering the final year of his current contract, and while the Steelers did address the defensive end position in the seventh-round of the 2013 NFL draft with selection of Samford defensive tackle Nick Williams, he is more than likely a good season and a half away from being ready to contribute regularly, let alone start.

The Steelers organization, in my opinion, hasn\’t completely given up yet on Hood and linebackers coach Keith Butler talked a little about him, as well as Heyward, during his talk with the media on the third day of the draft when asked if he is worried about the run defense this coming season due to the loss of veterans over the years.

“Now Aaron Smith was a big loss in my opinion. We have to be able to fill that void and I think we will because there’s couple of young guys that are coming along,” started Butler. “Cam[ron] Heyward is coming along pretty good. Ziggy Hood has some technical stuff that John [Mitchell] has to work with him on. And John knows about that so we’re going to try to get those things clarified and work that out and hopefully we’ll be good against the run.”

Keep in mind now that the Steelers defense ranked fourth in the league last year in rushing yards allowed per play with a 3.71 average. In 2011, they ranked 9th overall in that category as they allowed 4.00 yards per rush.

As far as the Steelers pass rush went the last two seasons, that was where the main problems on defense were and the play of outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley can be easily pointed to as the leading cause of that. Will it improve in 2013? It better, and it will be up to Woodley, Jason Worilds and quite possibly even Jarvis Jones to make sure that happens. Will the Steelers defensive line need to be better at pushing the pocket in 2013, in addition to the team getting more consistent pressure from their outside linebackers? Absolutely.

So if Heyward winds up not being the starter in Week 1 of the 2013 season, how much playing time should we expect from him? I don\’t think that 600 snaps is out of the question for him at all, but I truly believe that most of those snaps will come at the expense of Keisel, not Hood. Should things go like I expect that they will, Heyward will be starting on the right side by the middle of the season.

Should, however, Heyward wind up overtaking Hood as the starter on the left side during training camp, like Bouchette suggested could happen in his chat, it will signal that Hood is a colossal bust in the eyes of the organization, and it won\’t bode well for the immediate future of the Steelers defensive end positions moving forward into 2014.

So what about Hood, who as I mentioned above is entering the final year of rookie contract in 2013? If you truly think about it, unless the Steelers seriously think that he has no future with the team past this upcoming season, they almost have to try to work out a modest short-term extension with him between now and the start of the season. Right?

Should Heyward wind up bursting onto the scene in 2013, who will play on the other side of him in 2014? Keisel for one more year at 36? Williams, who Mitchell went out of his way to make it clear is a project after he was drafted? Al Woods, who by the way is also heading into his final year under contract? Brian Arnfelt or Cordian Hagans, both of whom were added as undrafted free agents?

Let me close by saying this, if Heyward winds up being a starter in Week 1, we all better hope that it is in place of Keisel and not Hood. If it winds up being the other way around, we all better hope that Williams is more than just a project.

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