Cam Heyward sees the defensive question marks dwinding for the Pittsburgh Steelers

SCI's Jim Wexell breaks down the prospects of the Steelers defense with the help of Cam Heyward.

LATROBE -- Cam Heyward, that old salty dog, tried to flip the script on a reporter who asked for his opinion about this year's Pittsburgh Steelers.

"What are YOUR opinions?" Heyward asked. "That's what I want to know."

When told those opinions are everywhere, very cheap and pretty much worthless, Heyward relented and gave HIS side of the story.

"From a defensive point of view, I like the growth we've had," he said. "There are some things we're able to do now that we weren't able to do last year, just by the level of comfortability we have in the defense. That goes on all three levels. We're able to mix things up, we're able to talk about it and then make an adjustment on the fly. Where last year we had some younger guys in that position that weren't too comfortable with it.

"I like that. I like the way we compete. It doesn't feel that uncomfortable having some of these guys in here. They feel a lot more comfortable in their roles."
Some of the newcomers include:

Sean Davis -- The rookie is playing three positions: slot corner, strong safety and free safety, and those in the know say he's making very few, if any, mental errors. As a safety, he knows what cornerbacks want and need from their over-the-top help, such as enough help on potential post patterns so the corner doesn't have to overplay the middle and get burned on a post-corner route. As a slot corner, Davis is physical on run downs and provides an attractive blitz option. If the second-round pick continues in this trajectory, he could start on opening day.

Javon Hargrave -- The rookie is seeing the bulk of his work as a first-team nickel tackle and second-team nose tackle, but he's also receiving time on the nose with the first team. In one-on-ones he's bull-rushing and then violently jerking the top reserves out of the way, and in team scrimmages he's impressing center Maurkice Pouncey. "He's short but that makes him hard to block," said Pouncey. "He's going to be a good one. I'm glad we have him."

Ross Cockrell -- The first-team left cornerback was with the team last year and started seven games in the slot, but none outside because the staff didn't think he was strong enough to hold up in either the outside run game or against the many big, physical wide receivers. So Cockrell spent the offseason getting stronger and working on becoming more physical with receivers. It's become obvious during AND after practice, when he spends a minimum of 30 extra minutes each day trying to become a more physical corner. He's already got the brains and temperament.

If the above two rookies don't start right away, young veterans Rob Golden and Daniel McCullers are playing well enough to hold them off.

Golden has the physical skills to handle the run and coverage duties necessary at strong safety.

So does McCullers, but it's always been a question of passion with the big man.

"You see how dominant he could be,"said Heyward. "But I don't like hearing 'could' because that's just potential. Dan's really got to take the next step. This is a big year for him. And we're going to give him every opportunity."

That leaves a couple of questions for a defense that has the right combination of youth and experience and the right mix of star power and emerging young veterans to become a championship unit.

The first question: Does this team have enough speed at cornerback?

While Will Gay is often compared to Deshea Townsend, in terms of average speed being overcome by savvy instincts, Townsend had speedball Ike Taylor on the other side of him during his tenure. Gay doesn't have that because first-round pick Artie Burns needs time to develop. So this defense will have to compensate with its pass rush.

"We got a lot of sacks," Heyward said of last year's No. 3 ranking. "But there were times we got them in blitzes and that might expose our secondary a little bit more. We need to get four-man pressures and three-man pressures to eliminate that and then we become even more dangerous. That means we've got to win our one-on-ones. If you get two on you, so be it, then you've got to fight through it. But if you get a one-on-one you've got to be able to capitalize on it."

The Steelers may have that potential with Hargrave in the middle, Heyward and Stephon Tuitt emerging as all-world ends, and the improved showings of linebackers Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Anthony Chickillo in this camp. The oft-injured Bud Dupree should also help the pass rush as well.

The second question about this emerging defense is depth on the defensive line. Ricardo Mathews doesn't appear to be much more than a journeyman, but L.T. Walton has shown flashes in his second season.

Is it enough to give Heyward and Tuitt the fresh legs they'll need later in the season?

"You look at guys around the league," Heyward said. "The great d-lines have a good rotation and then they're fresh by the playoff run. If we can get that and have a continuity where it continues to grow, or if we're just blowing out teams and we're done by the second quarter, I'd be happy with that too.

"L.T. Walton has a year and we're counting a lot on him to grow. Then you have Ricardo Mathews, who's played in San Diego, who's just about grasping the playbook. If we can get those two guys to really take the next step ..."

Heyward didn't finish the thought.

But it no doubt ended with the words Super Bowl.


Someone asked Heyward about being ancient, tenure wise, in only his sixth season.

"Wut?" Heyward said with the modern accent to it. "I don't need a wheelchair yet. I really enjoy this time and hopefully that's why we kept Deebo (James Harrison) so I don't have to be the old guy on the team."

"Or DeAngelo Williams," someone else offered.

Heyward, of course, is behind the daily singing of "Happy Birthday" to Williams at this camp.

"Yeah. DeAngelo, sheesh," Heyward said. "He's got all these birthdays piling up. This is crazy."

At "Friday Night Lights," the Steelers picked it up and had Bill Hillgrove sing to Williams from the press box. After practice, the Latrobe High School cheerleaders serenaded Williams and his young kids with the song.
Isn't Williams sick of hearing it?

"No," Heyward said. "He's telling y'all he doesn't like it but he secretly likes all the birthday wishes. His kids get all excited for the balloons. He's not telling you about all the stuff that's going on, either. Ask him about his locker room. He had a pinata in there. I don't know who put that in there. He doesn't know who put that in there, either, so we're going to keep it that way."


The star of "Friday Night Lights" -- the practice session held in front of 12,100 fans downtown at Latrobe Stadium -- was seventh-round rookie linebacker Tyler Matakevich, also known as "Dirty Red."
Matakevich used an array of dead-leg fakes, spin moves, power and speed in blitzing past all blockers in the backs-on-backers drill.

"Everything's starting to come along," Matakevich said. "All you have to do is come in here and work as hard as you possibly can. That's the only way you get noticed. Work as hard as you can, show everyone your work ethic and make plays."

Where did the man who made 493 tackles in four years at Temple learn such nifty pass-rush moves?

"I've got a few things up my sleeve," he said with a laugh. "Hey, I'm just trying to get better every day, figure out an edge I can use out here to my advantage and hopefully be able to help this team out."


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