Speculation Of Defensive End Battle Mounting With Training Camp About To Begin

By Matthew Marczi

The idea that Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward will compete for a starting job has been floating around since last offseason, when Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette touted that belief fervently. Nothing much was ever made of it at the time.

This year, the argument has been even louder; in fact, I wrote about it last month when Jim Wexell added to it at Steel City Insider. Back then, Wexell wrote of a “scuttlebutt”—adding that there was nothing official—that Heyward would be battling incumbent Ziggy Hood for the starting left defensive end job once training camp rolls around.

At the time, I more or less dismissed the idea that a serious battle for a starting job would take place along the defensive line, but suggested that he could earn himself a higher snap count entering his third season.

I cited the marginal statistical production that he was able to muster relative to his limited snap count and the fact that Hood will be depended upon to be a starter down the road again anyway as reasons that I believed that nothing legitimately competitive will ever come of the whispers.

Recently, however, Bob Labriola mentioned Heyward on the Steelers’ website on their Talkin’ Steelers audio segment, and he did not pull any punches in his belief that not only is Heyward a better player than Hood, but that he will show it this preseason and taking Hood’s starting position:

I think Cam Heyward takes Ziggy Hood’s starting job this summer. The perception of him outside the organization has been inaccurate. I think this kid is really coming along. He is figuring it out and cutting down on some of the mistakes that he made in his previous seasons—mistakes of emotion, getting too fired up—because defensive end in this system is a control position, you have to be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there. In his youth he would get exuberant, maybe throw an offensive lineman here or there and create a gap. A little Buckeye would come out. I think now he is figuring it out. I think he’s a better player than Ziggy Hood, and I think we end up seeing that, maybe by the end of the preseason.

So are Wexell and Labriola right? Will we actually see a legitimate training camp battle between these two former first round picks for one starting spot, even if Ziggy Hood ultimately wins that battle?

Ralph Paulk of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review does not seem to think Heyward will be starting this season, saying that “he isn’t likely to supplant Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel in the starting lineup”. Pro Football Talk does not believe that he will either. Neither does Pro Football Focus—however, they believe, as I wrote yesterday, that “he has the ability to be a high quality end” and that starting Hood over him “looks almost like a team hoping a clear first-round bust can be disguised by playing time”.

Many people have written on this topic, and nobody actually has a solid answer. Fortunately, training camp is just around the corner, and, as Wexell said, “training camp? That’s for the positional battles”.

We tend to improperly make assumptions based on what we see in OTAs and minicamps, sometimes forgetting that these spring drills do not necessarily correlate with what will unfold in the summer. Just because we do not see any signs of something in the spring does not mean that there are no plans for it in training camp.

Heyward did not take any of Hood’s reps in the spring—although he did take some of Keisel’s—and due to extenuating circumstances Mike Adams never got a look at left tackle, but we cannot simply conclude that those positions are locks entering the most critical part of the offseason. While running back may be the only obvious spot legitimately up for grabs, the recent chatter about Heyward is certainly piling up on the eve of training camp.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Jason Brant

    I see him taking snaps from Kiesel this year. Benching Ziggy for Heyward when this is the Beard’s last year with the Steelers doesn’t sound right.

  • mem359

    Like Jason said, it would be strange to have the next two guys in line behind Kiesel fighting for the same spot, rather than grooming one of them to be Kiesel’s replacement next year.

    Is Kiesel able to play both sides comfortably (since he has the most experience)?

    It seems like the Steelers would like to keep 2 out of these 3 (Kiesel, Hood, Heyward) in the game, with the other backups used only on rare occasions. Whenever Heyward is brought in, Kiesel could sometimes give Hood a breather on the other side.

  • steeltown

    Agreed

  • steeltown

    Heyward is being groomed to replace Keisel, its that simple. Hood will work on his technique in camp this year and should come out with something to prove. I’m sure Heyward will get some snaps on the left side in camp simply because they value versatility and if (god forbid) Hood goes down with injury. Of course people will talk about this as if it means he has surpassed Ziggy but lets not confuse the situation, Keisel is nearing the end and Heyward will be ready to fill the RDE role when that time comes.

    Im hoping Hood and Woodley both having something to prove this season on the Left side will spell danger for opposing QB’s and RB’s

    On a side note: Going to REALLY REEALLY miss Keisel

  • dgh57

    Yes, can’t help but miss “THE BEARD” after this upcoming season!

  • steeltown

    Im hoping DeCastro grows a beard out in the near future, he started growing one last season but it was pretty manicured

  • Randy Neff

    The only reason Keisel would be losing snaps is because he needs a breather. Taking snaps away from someone who clearly better because of next year doesn’t sound like a move Tomlin/LeBeau would be making.

  • Randy Neff

    Hood may not be coming back next year also. Big year for him.

  • dennisdoubleday

    I’m no expert in DE play, but it always seems to me that when Heyward is in there you NOTICE him; he is making things happen. Maybe he takes too many risks and I don’t notice the plays he misses.

    But with Hood, on pass plays I see him being repeatedly stood up and hand fighting with the tackle about five yards away from the QB, who comfortably surveys the field. Heyward applies pressure, and lack of pressure was our biggest problem last year.

  • steeltown

    I should be more clear, I believe if Heyward is to get more snaps this year they will most likely be in place of Keisel, whether it be due to injury or platoon to keep fresh legs. I don’t see Hood losing too much playing time in a contract year

    That said, Keisel is clearly superior and he had a fantastic season last year, would love for the same production

  • mem359

    Dave had made an animated GIF of Hood in one of the other articles, and a commenter complained about how Hood was playing patty-cake with the tackle away from the QB. A different commenter pointed out that Hood had sealed that side (preventing the QB from rolling out of the pocket), and gave a wide open lane for the linebacker to blitz the QB.

    I’m glad that 2nd person spoke up, because it wasn’t obvious that Hood’s actions were part of the larger scheme. Not saying this is true of every play, but it probably happens more often than we think.

  • Shea Fahr

    With the current depth issues on the D-line and Hood’s continued willingness to learn his position, I see an extension coming for him. Combine this with the uncertainty of Keisel’s future beyond this year, I see Heyward and Hood being the Starters in the next few years. Hood has not been great but he has not been terrible either. We may never get an Aaron Smith performance out of him but I still think his arrow is pointing up. I for one hope they extend him.

  • Randy Neff

    I agree for the most part, but if Hood is playing well below the level of Heyward, contract year won’t matter. They could then offer Hayward a new deal after the season instead of Hood. I don’t think the contracts have anything to do with playing time this season. Heyward might be more comfortable at RDE, that may be more of a factor than the contract year of Ziggy.

  • steeltown

    I more mean that I expect Hood to have a stellar season, playing for his future and all… of course a contract extension before the season starts would make that a moot point

  • steeltown

    I have to agree… in addition to your reasoning, considering the need to extend Worilds and/or E.Sanders is far less after the drafting of Jarvis Jones and Wheaton and the fact that McLendon has been signed to a multi-yr deal and Pouncey wont be a UFA till 2015… the next in line for an extension I think would be Hood

  • Alexander Sebastian Heath

    This! I mean its ridiculous to think Hood is a disappointment, considering its him who is pushing Heyward over to right (in my world, Hood would be lining up on right end, Heyward on left end but whatever) and Hood is a player who literally doesn’t need a breather.

    I’m not pimping Ziggy Hood but he’s underrated by Steelers fans. He may not be Aaron Smith, but he surely can be a different kind of breed, not only but better at it (pass-rushing) and by now I’m pretty sure the league have their eyes on ziggy hood. He just might be other team’s James Farrior. Sad but true.

  • Shea Fahr

    Yeah, that’s is what I am thinking too. The only way Hood would be allowed to walk next year is if they would bring in a Vet Free agent to take his place. I would extend him.

  • SteelSpine

    Labriola is a long-time homer, I recall his predictions many years ago against-the-grain which then turned out wrong vs other beat-writers were right, so I don’t put stock in what he predicts. So in this case it could be just blind loyalty to Heyward’s dad back when Ironhead attended Pitt. Because there’s not enough to base on that Heyward is taking Ziggy’s starting job this camp. It’s fun controversy tho.

  • Randy Neff

    Well that would make sense.I hope you’re right. I have serious doubts though. Might be a situation similar to Lewis and Allen.

  • Randy Neff

    A cap friendly deal only. No big bucks. No whammies.

  • Luke Shabro

    I don’t think Hood gets a contract extension. At least I hope not. I had high hopes for him but his background as more of a penetrating DT comes through pretty often. He seems to be always trying to make splash plays. I just don’t see him having a workmen like mentality that Aaron Smith and Keisel had/have

  • Jason Brant

    I expect the Steelers to extend Hood this offseason. His price tag is very low right now and his play last season wasn’t as bad as some people say. He wasn’t all-pro, but he wasn’t awful either.

  • Jason Brant

    I think the comparisons to Aaron Smith are a lot of the problem. No one is going to replace Smith. Hood isn’t a chump though.

  • steeltown

    So who starts at DE next year? Al Woods? No thank you, Hood wont break the bank

  • steeltown

    Agreed

  • Luke Shabro

    Why did Ben never grow a playoff beard again? That was epic.

  • steeltown

    Agreed

  • Shea Fahr

    True but a little bit more than Mclendon got.

  • Shea Fahr

    Exactly.

  • steeltown

    For sure, if extended he’ll get more than what McLendon received, im thinking 4yr $15MIL extension

  • Matthew Marczi

    I was going to mention that Labriola has a bit of an inconsistent track record. I do not agree with him about Heyward either. But the main reason I brought his comment up was because it suggested, as a few others have, that there will be a competition at the position. I still don’t know if it will happen (nobody not affiliated with the team really does), but I’m kind of hoping it does, even if I think Hood will win.

  • Steeler Wheeler

    Hood, a good guy playing a 3-4 end spot without glory, an extremely healthy, athletic 6-3 280 pounds, experienced, and 26 or 27 years old…dude’s gonna look for huge payday, I mean 4-3 elite, outside rush end payday. Can Steelers franchise him and try to pay him like an abused, under-appreciated 3-4 end…until they trade him?

  • Eddy

    I believe the DE situation with Heyward/Hood/Keisel will play out like the Hampton/McLendon did last year.

    We will see great plays and games from Heyward(McLendon) but he will have significant less playing time than Hood/Keisel(Hampton), who are ahead of him on the depth chart.

    Throughout the year, there will be lots of speculation as to why Heyward is not getting more playing time. Eventually, the Steelers will only re-sign one of the veteran DEs and Heyward will be free to assume the starting role in 2014.

  • Shea Fahr

    Nah, it will be a very modest deal and I think he will accept it.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    I still do not like the play of Hood but he will do. I love his attitude and how hard he works. I always thought Heyward was better but like most have said he will probably take Keisel’s spot next year.

  • walter mason

    We traded up for a NT. I wonder if Ta’Amu will ever be a factor allowing McClendon to move to DE? I havent heard much about Ta’Amu but I dont think we should automatically count him out or am I reaching?. Its his 2nd year and he needs to show up.

  • Stephen Dale

    the production at the DE position needs to increase regardless of who starts or who comes off the bench. One of these guys needs to take the next step and actually produce….

  • sgtrobo

    There should never be a question about a training camp battle. There ALWAYS should be an open competition, with the starting position going to the better player, as opposed to the entrenched veteran starter.

  • Milliken Steeler

    I have been saying Heyward is ready however I disagree on Ziggy. He is going to take snaps from Kiesel and not Ziggy. Ziggy has came along every year and has looked like he has gotten that much better with hard work this off season.

    You can’t pull a strong, quick, improving and young Ziggy off that line for a 35 year old player. It makes no sense to do that.

    Compare Ziggys stats to Kiesel last year with Ziggy’s upside and age. You cant pull the kid out for improving every year and not getting hurt. He is part of the number 2 defense against the run which included Big Snack fading fast last year.
    Has anyone even made an offer to Casey? There is a reason for that.