Heyward Gearing Up for Showdown

Former first-round draft pick has mind, body ready for a training-camp battle to claim a spot on the first-team defensive line.

PITTSBURGH –Cameron Heyward's searching for a role these days, or at least something more defined than "first sub for either Keis or Zig."

That was how he described his role last season behind defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood.

But that's no role for a former first-round draft pick on the cusp of his third season, as Heyward is.

"My role is that I've got to be ready," is how he's updating the job description this spring.

That's all he would say. In fact, Heyward said it six times during a six-question interview that followed Thursday's OTA.

That interview materialized because it appeared Heyward had been given a role that day. He was one of the first-team defensive linemen during the entirety of the "two-minute" scrimmages that framed practice.

Or so it appeared to be a role.

"I don't really know," Heyward said. "Keisel didn't take the snaps today. I've just got to be ready to play when my number is called."

Right.

The scuttlebutt – nothing official could be confirmed – is that Heyward is preparing himself for a head-to-head battle with not Keisel but with Hood at this coming training camp.

Hood, of course, is entering the final year of his contract, as is Keisel. The obvious difference between Hood and Keisel is that Hood just turned 26 and Keisel will turn 35 in September.

But before anyone can make a snap decision on which player the Steelers will re-sign, there's also this difference:

Keisel made the Pro Bowl in 2010, was an alternate in 2011, and led the team with a career-high 40 QB pressures in 2012. The number of pressures not only exceeded the runner-up by 21, it was second-most of the Dick LeBeau II era.

Those are extraordinary accomplishments for a 3-4 end in this scheme. Even the great Aaron Smith made only one Pro Bowl, and it took an outside linebacker, James Harrison, to top the pressures count with 44.

It may make more sense to just let the best man win at camp, age and future be darned, but no one was saying whether that rumored one-on-one battle will actually take place.

"When the day comes that I do hang it up, Cam's worked hard and I will gladly hand the torch off to him," Keisel of his personal intentions. "But, that day's not coming soon."

Keisel said that Heyward just might be ready to win a job, and that not only did Heyward play his best football down the stretch last season, he carried it over to the off-season.

"I've been in here almost every day, and he's in there, too," Keisel said as he pointed to the weight room. "He's been working his butt off, and it shows. He looks bigger and stronger. He's got a great feel for the defense. He's just waiting for that opportunity, and when he gets it he'll be ready to shine."

Heyward agrees that he's better prepared for a positional battle now than he was at this time a year ago.

"I was just coming off a little bit of an injury, not big," Heyward said of his 2012 off-season. "I was definitely ready to play, but it might not have been what the coaches saw.

"I've lost a little bit of weight this off-season. I'm just trying to get in better shape. I've been talking to Big A, Aaron Smith, a lot and he told me I need to come in great shape this off-season and just continue to work on my technique."

That's what the spring's about for veterans, to get in shape for training camp.

And training camp? That's for the positional battles. And the signs are pointing to Heyward being given a real chance.

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