By Matthew Marczi
Some Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been vocal in their disappointment that former 2011 first-round draft pick Cameron Heyward has yet to crack the starting lineup in his third season, even though he is playing behind another former first-round draft pick in Ziggy Hood and a former Pro Bowler in Brett Keisel. Well, they can now stop their belly-aching, because he has just unseated Hood.
Although he has not been starting, Heyward has clearly been able to do a lot of good things thus far during the season, despite the team’s overall poor start. The Steelers may have lost their first four games, but Heyward certainly cannot be blamed for much if any of it, because he has contributed when in the game, and will now have a greater opportunity to do so.
This year, defensive line coach John Mitchell, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and head coach Mike Tomlin saw fit to work Heyward into the game more than they have in his first two seasons. In accordance with that plan, they have made him a de facto nickel defensive tackle, where up until now he has seen most of his playing time.
Heyward has truly taken the bull by the horns in the nickel package and is having great success as a pass rusher for the Steelers. Although he has not registered a sack as of yet, he does have eight quarterback disruptions, with one hit, and that comes in 79 pass rushing snaps.
What that means, of course, is that he gets to the quarterback ten percent of the time when rushing the passer. More than that, however, he has also managed to deflect two passes this season to lead the team, including this effort against the Minnesota Vikings.
The most important trait that he possesses overall, however, is undoubtedly his motor and his unwillingness to give up on a play. This has never been an issue throughout Heyward’s football past, going back to his days as a team leader and motivator in his college days at LeBeau’s favorite institution. One play in particular that caught my eye while reviewing the tape was a running play late in the game.
On this play, the Steelers are in their base look, though with some rotational players on the field. It is a zone run, and after the right guard charges past him, Heyward is cut by the right tackle, bringing him down. He keeps his eyes on the play, however, and pops right up. With Keisel chasing him around in the backfield, Heyward manages to track Adrian Peterson down and bring him down for a two-yard loss.
Just for good measure, he even wrestles the ball away at the end. Yes, the hustle and no-quit spirit that Heyward brings to the game will serve him well in his new role as a starter.