When you look back just to the start of last season and project the starting lineup that the Pittsburgh Steelers can be expected to field when they resume play in September, you’ll see that they’ve undergone quite a bit of change. Certainly more than usual.
With two exceptions—Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell—the changes to the opening day lineup will be made either due to free agency losses or gains or simply superior play. The two aforementioned players, of course, projected as starters but missed the early portions of last season due to injury.
This series will take a look primarily at the starting positions that will be filled by new faces, replacing the old faces that are now gone—Emmanuel Sanders, Ziggy Hood, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Ryan Clark.
Position: Right Defensive End
2013 Opening Day Starter: Brett Keisel
Projected 2014 Starter: Cameron Heyward
On the eve of June, it seems likely to me by now that the Steelers will not be bringing back veteran defensive end Brett Keisel, and that fourth-year lineman Cameron Heyward will be inheriting his role on the right side of the line.
With all else being equal, it is my observation that Heyward tended to play on the right side, unless Keisel was also on the field, hence my decision to view the scenario in this way.
Likewise, Ziggy Hood was strictly a left end; when Heyward replaced Hood, he played on the left. When Keisel went down, however, Heyward moved to the right side.
Either way, there will figure to be new starters at both end positions by the time the season starts, with both Hood and Keisel gone, regardless of whether or not Heyward plays in the spot of the former or the latter.
Assuming that he is replacing Keisel’s production, however, the convenience is that Heyward is capable of replicating some of the veteran’s greatest attributes on the field; in particular, the pass rush that he offers from the defensive end position, and his ceaseless motor.
He has also shown a capability of aspiring to the pass-deflecting prowess that was a calling card for Keisel a few years ago during his period of Pro Bowl-caliber performances.
Where Keisel was most likely to lapse, especially in recent seasons, was against the run, and Heyward grew tremendously in that area over the course of the last season.
Heyward certainly has a higher ceiling than Keisel had. It might be worth noting that it wasn’t until his fifth season that Keisel became a starter. But of course it’s to be expected that a first-round pick has a higher ceiling than a seventh-rounder.
Of course, the biggest difference is that Heyward just turned 25, while Keisel will be turning 36 in the first month of the season. Heyward has yet to miss a game through his first three seasons, while Keisel has missed 16 games since 2008—and that’s not including games in which he left early while trying to come back from injury too soon.
Really, the decision to move on from Keisel, and whether that could be a mistake, has little to with Heyward. It’s more about who emerges at the other defensive end spot, where a set of four candidates could be set to face off for the starting job.