Heyward Putting It All Together

Did the light come on for the Steelers' 2011 first-round draft pick? Or for the coaching staff? Here's the story:

For reporters at least, Cameron Heyward was the toast of the locker room this past week.

Yes, he's been kicking tail and taking names since being promoted to the starting lineup two games ago, and that was the gist of most conversations.

The buy-in, though, was that Heyward went to college with the star quarterback of this week's opponent: Terrelle Pryor.

"His athleticism is ridiculous," Heyward said. "Everybody thinks they know what type of player he is, but you see on film now he's running away from DBs. He's got 4.3 speed. He looks like he's jogging out there. But I remember back in our basketball days he was just doing some sick dunks. He's a heck of a basketball player, but a hell of a football player."

Basketball days?

"I'm decent," Heyward said. "I used to play a little bit."

So did Aaron Smith.

So did Brett Keisel.

Maybe it should be the prerequisite for Steelers 3-4 defensive ends.

Heyward, like those other famous 5-techs, was a power forward. He played for, among other teams, an AAU squad called the Pittsburgh J.O.T.S.

DeJuan Blair -- former Pitt Panther and current Dallas Maverick -- was the center. Pryor was the small forward. D.J. Kennedy -- former St. John Red Hawk and Cleveland Cav -- was the shooting guard. At point guard was 6-8 Herb Pope, whom talent guru Sonny Vaccaro once called "the best player I've seen from the Pittsburgh area probably in more than 20 years."

That team could play a little bit. But Heyward has graduated to an NFL team that is starting to play a little bit. And Heyward's one of the reasons. In spite of ranking ninth on the defense in number of snaps, Heyward ranks first with 17 quarterback pressures.

In the last two games, of course, his average snap count has increased by 73 percent as he's joined the starting lineup after two-plus seasons on the bench.

If you ask around the front offices for an approximate time the light clicked on for Heyward, you're likely to be answered this way: The light went on for the coaching staff instead.

Most will admit to wanting Heyward to replace Ziggy Hood late last season. But many sources actually said so at the time. I even reported that a one-on-one positional showdown was looming before training camp. It never took place, but Mike Tomlin eventually made the move himself during the bye.

The Steelers are 2-0 since then.

"He's come in and played very well, but he made significant strides this off-season," said Keisel. "I think a lot of it comes with more understanding of the defense, more understanding of what we want him to do, a better understanding of his own technique.

"You know, you can't just try and play with a stance like I do or like Aaron did or like Casey (Hampton) does. You've got to kind of develop your own way that you play. And I think once all that comes together, and you get comfortable, that's when you make the biggest strides. That's what he's done and they're giving him this opportunity. He's taken advantage of it."

The play Heyward made during a goal-line stand, that kept the New York Jets to a field goal, is an example. That's been Keisel's favorite Heyward play of the season thus far.

"I don't have a favorite play yet," said Heyward. "Hopefully my favorite play comes up pretty soon."

That kickoff return against the Baltimore Ravens had to at least be a fun play. But after displaying his father's form -- according to the TV play-by-play man -- he was tackled, and then reprimanded.

"I have to be smart," Heyward said. "You could see on Monday where Sharrif Floyd of the Vikings fumbled the ball. He did the same exact thing, trying to gain extra yards."

"He was trying to beat my 12-yard average," said Keisel. "I've got two returns in my stat sheet, 12 yards. Did Cam get that? I think he got about 11 and a half."

Heyward was credited with 11.0 yards.

"Which," Keisel added, "at the end of those, about 10 guys drill you and you're under the pile getting hit every time and you're like 'Why did I do that?' They smoke you, ya know? So the coaches just want to make sure he doesn't get hurt doing something like that."

Another recent Heyward play was simple, yet sublime. Against the Ravens he was putting heat on the quarterback but quickly came off the O-lineman's block to tackle the receiver, Ray Rice, 8 yards over the middle. He's that quick.

And at only 288 pounds, he's strong.

"He is strong," said Joe Long, a guard/tackle who's faced Heyward in every practice since May. "He has great hands. If you see him in the weight room, he can put up a lot of weight. And he can move guys off the ball."

"Me and Kelvin Beachum worked out together almost every day in the off-season and we really pushed ourselves," said Heyward. "You have to. I may not look it but I have to be stronger if I'm going to play that position.

"That was my main goal coming into the season, to be one of the stronger defensive ends, just don't rely on quickness, because if they're going to block you you've got to hold the point."

His backup, Al Woods, raves about Heyward's study habits and note-taking. And Emmanuel Sanders perks up when talking about Heyward's play on special teams. After all, Heyward threw the block that opened up the sideline alley for Sanders' late return (that was called back) against the Ravens.

"Yeah, he did," said Sanders. "Cam is extremely athletic. When you have a guy like that, it helps out the team a lot because he's very flexible -- to be so big, you know."

We know. And those little things are adding up to a breakout season.

Heyward even helps out as locker-room clown. "He's a goofball in the locker room," said Long.

"Yeah, Cam's like a large toddler," said Keisel. "He's like a child, an enormous child. But it's fun. That little kid that's inside of him, who he keeps a hold of and still runs around with, I enjoy it as an older guy, because his youthful exuberance kind of rubs off on us."

He's got it all, doesn't he?

"Well," Keisel said. "Tell him he needs to work on his beard."

And probably his outside jump shot.

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