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Cam Heyward growing into leader for Steelers

October 1, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Cam Heyward can rattle the list off in seconds.

The names of the 10 defensive linemen taken ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers end in the first round of 2011 NFL draft come to mind so quickly it’s as if Heyward is pointing out faces in a family picture.

Marcell Dareus. J.J. Watt. Robert Quinn. Ryan Kerrigan. On and on it goes. Some are well known. Some are not. All of them, however, are remembered by the player who is constantly searching for that little extra motivation. In the end, he knows those little slights might make all the difference.

“Talent isn’t always going to win,” Heyward said. “You’ve got to have heart. You’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to be ready.”

Something the fourth-year veteran is embracing, in both victory and defeat.

As the mentors who took Heyward under their wing — Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Casey Hampton chief among them — have vanished to retirement, Heyward has made it a point to become the spokesman for a team still searching for an identity a month into the season. It’s what leaders do.

When the Steelers (2-2) allowed lowly Tampa Bay to rip off 10 fourth-quarter points in a 27-24 victory last Sunday, Heyward dutifully stood at his locker and took responsibility for the mistakes. Some of them — like the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he received for arguing with an official — were his fault. Others, like the other 12 flags the Steelers drew, were not.

While his teammates dressed quietly in stunned silence, Heyward spoke evenly, trying to set a tone for the road ahead starting Sunday at Jacksonville (0-4).

“Don’t count us out yet,” he said. “It happens. They made the plays at the end. You’ve got to give them credit. We’ve got to grow from this. Hopefully this will never happen again.”

Heyward understands he’s at the point in his career where his production needs to start meeting his potential. The son of longtime NFL running back Craig Heyward shares his father’s relentlessness and love for the game. And at 6-foot-5 and 290-pounds, he’s a presence at the line of scrimmage. He’s not as fast as Watt or as massive ad Dareus, but Heyward makes up for any physical shortcomings by using the massive head — another thing he inherited from his dad — stuffed inside his helmet.

The proof of Heyward’s evolution is obvious beyond the fact he already has two sacks, a pace that would put him well ahead of the five he registered last year. Defensive line coach John Mitchell gives his players a written quiz each week. The test breaks down everything from formations to tendencies. Each player gets a grade. Most weeks Heyward is among those with the top marks.

It’s not a coincidence.

“A lot of guys have very good book sense but no football sense and vice versa,” Mitchell said. “Cam is a guy that’s smart. He knows what’s going on on the field.”

A snapshot from Pittsburgh’s season-opening win over Cleveland provided proof.

Tied at 27 late in the fourth quarter, the Browns had the ball with a chance to win it. It never happened, not after the drive began with Heyward enveloping Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer for a sack. The Browns punted three plays later, giving Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger just enough time to win it.

The sack was the byproduct of several things: great coverage by linebacker Ryan Shazier on Hoyer’s primary target; even better coverage by the rest of the secondary as Hoyer looked for options; and Heyward’s ability to recognize the play call. He ducked to the inside at the snap then bowled over an offensive lineman before wrapping his massive arms around Hoyer’s No. 6 jersey.

“He can look at tape and dissect the things that are going to go on around him,” Mitchell said. “On that play at the end of the Cleveland game, it’s a formation he had seen and talked about. Dick (LeBeau) had them in a great defense and he was able to make the play.”

Yet Heyward refuses to single himself out. The Steelers have won when he hasn’t played well. They have lost when he has. Whatever his stat line looks like at the end of the fourth quarter, he’s still more concerned about the number on the scoreboard.

It’s a lesson he learned from his father, who spent most of his 11-year career paving the way for smaller, faster backs. It’s sometimes anonymous work, but work that must be done. Craig Heyward provided his son with a model that Cam has tried to follow during a career that is starting to take flight.

The Steelers have already picked up his option for next season with the intent of making him a cornerstone through the end of the decade and beyond. That’s just fine with him.

“I would love to be here,” he said. “I know they like to keep their players ... to do that I’ve got to take care of business on the field and take care of my business off the field.

NOTES: OG Ramon Foster (ankle) practiced Wednesday and said he definitely would play this week. Foster missed the past two games after being injured at Baltimore in Week 2. . WR Martavis Bryant (illness), OLB James Harrison (illness) and ILB Ryan Shazier (knee) did not practice.


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