The Pittsburgh Steelers have parted ways with a number of aging talents that epitomized success in the community during the height of their careers. While their on-field assets may have diminished over the years, however, one should not underestimate the ripple effect that their departures could have within the locker room.
While the concepts of camaraderie and leadership may be somewhat elusive when it comes to the team chemistry of a sports team, there is no doubt some truth to the idea that these qualities help build a winning team, especially when it comes to a game as interconnected with one another as is football.
The last several offseasons have seen some quality championship characters exit stage right, and their vacant lockers no doubt diminished the overall character of the room as a whole. Just recently, the team saw both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu retire, even if their departures were already in the plans for this spring.
The question now becomes identifying who the new locker room leaders are, both now and in the future. I believe we do have some immediate answers, with a few waiting to be developed in the coming years, so let’s get to know some of these men who are leading the locker room these days for the Steelers.
While Lawrence Timmons may be the most senior, decorated, and experienced starter on the defense at this point—barring James Harrison—however, it does seem clear that fifth-year defensive tackle Cameron Heyward is quickly becoming as much of a leader as anybody on this unit.
And this is not a new trend that is only beginning to blossom this season. We saw it as early as the 2013 season, as he finally cracked the starting lineup five games into a nightmare season, during which he clearly outplayed Ziggy Hood coming into the game during sub-package situations.
Heyward came into the league attempting to learn his draft behind two pro’s pros in Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, who both took him under their wing and mentored him, showed him how to play and how to be a professional.
And he may well be on his way to becoming a better player than either of them, particularly as a pass rusher. Heyward has notched 12.5 sacks over the course of the past two seasons from the defensive end position, including a team-leading 7.5 sacks last year.
As with most good leaders in this field, of course, it all starts with leading by example, and Heyward no doubt does that. His high-intensity, durable, take no snap off mentality is taken noted of by his teammates. It is an infectious attitude that makes the players around him better.
Heyward watched for years as Keisel chased plays down the field making tackles that he had no business making, and now he is doing the same, and watching as Stephon Tuitt learns to do so as well.
But his presence is no longer being felt just on the field through his actions, because he is also becoming a more vocal leader. Already last season, the defensive line became his, especially with Keisel going unsigned for much of the offseason.
Now, coming off two impressive seasons all of his own, Heyward is emerging as a leader of the defense as a whole, as arguably one of its two best players. It’s up to him to seize the mantle of leadership and help drive this unit to be its best under his guidance.