One of the underrated reasons for the Steelers' turnaround last season was the installation of Cam Heyward as the starting left defensive end after the 0-4 start.
The Steelers went 8-4 the rest of the way and Heyward finished with 63 tackles, was first on the team with 31 quarterback pressures, tied for second with 5 sacks, and was sixth with 5 passes defensed, or three more than free safety Ryan Clark.
Heyward just turned 25 last month, but he's clearly a team leader as he heads into only his fourth season in Pittsburgh. Cam discussed his role as a leader with me in the following one-on-one interview.
JW: Are you getting better?
CH: I think every day we're all getting better. That's the ultimate goal. Sometimes we fall short but the next day we learn from our mistakes and take it into the next practice.
JW: What are you working on personally? In what way are you looking to improve?
CH: Just recognizing stuff, understanding what run formations there are, and pass formations, understanding tendencies, and then relaying it and making sure we have good communications.
JW: With Brett Keisel and most of the other veterans gone, do you have to help everyone else out on the line in that recognition/communications factor?
CH: Not really. I'm still learning, too. It's not like I can just call shots out there. If guys have questions I'm there to listen and answer if I can.
JW: Is the defense faster?
CH: It's hard to say right now. We'll see once we put on the pads and see if we can keep the speed up, but it's a little bit of fool's gold when you look at it.
JW: Why do you say that?
CH: Because you can't look at it until you put on pads. You want to play fast but you still have to be able to hit, too. It's not going to mean anything if you don't get the job done.
CH: They're progressing every day. I know it's not the finished product they want, but by Day One they should be up to speed. I think they're capable of playing.
JW: Shazier's expected to do it on Day One. Will he be ready?
CH: We'll see. I really can't give you a definite answer but he's got all the tools to do it. It's all just about him. He's got to set the mindset of coming in every day and learning.
JW: Tuitt just turned 21. He's playing a difficult position. How far away or close is he?
CH: Well, it's a scary thing, and you can look at it two ways: He's got a lot of potential, but what's he going to do to get to that potential. Potential's a scary word, but it's about reaching that ceiling. A lot of us haven't. So he's got to continue to improve and take it all in. I know it's a lot to learn. It's a different position for him. But if he comes to work with the right mindset he'll be fine.
JW: Your two defensive captains from last year are gone and Lawrence Timmons has moved to the buck. I see you and Timmons emerging as the two young leaders. Do you see it that way?
CH: We'll see. It's all about what the team needs. If they need me to I will. If I have to just be a guy on the team who knows what it takes to be a Steeler, so be it.
JW: I watch you interact with your teammates. It's pretty obvious that you're a leader.
CH: Yeah, but that's for the team to decide. It's not my decision. I'll take it. The main thing about being a leader is keeping this team together, so that's what we've got to do.
JW: Is this team going to be OK in that regard?
CH: I think so. We have a good group right now.
JW: How's Timmons doing as the playcaller?
CH: He's doing well. I think he's learned a lot and he's helping Shazier because he's able to pick Shazier's brain and he's able to be more vocal this year.
JW: Is Timmons a vocal guy? He's always been quiet.
CH: Well, if you know L.T. like I do, he's very vocal.
JW: The nickname "Law Dawg" fits him?
CH: Yes, sir.
JW: How's Mike Munchak doing with the offensive line? Have you been able to tell?
CH: Yeah. Definitely. He asks a lot of them and he demands a lot of respect. I don't think those guys want to let him down, so when you have a guy like that -- he really pushes them to do well. The way he teaches them, he takes his time and is very detail-oriented. I think they're going to learn a lot from him.
JW: What does the summer hold for you after minicamp?
CH: I'll be here working.
JW: You'll continue lifting?
CH: Lifting, running and watching film. Getting ready for Day One.
JW: You sound like a captain to me.
CH: (Chuckles) We'll see.