For years, whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers brought a new defensive end into the meeting rooms, we would always inevitably hear the stories of how Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel took the newcomers on their wings, showed them the ropes, and helped them adjust to life as a largely unappreciated cog in the 3-4 machine.
Those two veterans had been at it for so long that they became on-field guides, teacher’s assistants to defensive line coach John Mitchell, preaching his defensive line gospel. Chris Hoke, too, filled this role, and he still visits from time to time in the offseason to work with the players, even if he seems to have found his life’s work now in broadcasting, rather than coaching.
Last season, the Steelers added an extremely significant new cog into their system when they drafted defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and I don’t doubt for a minute that the mid-August decision to re-sign Keisel was made in no small part due to his ability to help Tuitt grow into the Steelers’ system.
Tuitt mentioned Keisel yesterday and the role that he played in his development as a rookie, which saw the former enter the starting lineup after Keisel landed on injured reserve for the final four games of the regular season and the one postseason contest the Steelers played in.
“Brett Keisel taught me a lot in one year. I can’t imagine if he was here even one more year how much I would have learned… I’ve got the confidence now from the stuff that I learned from him being a great mentor, and I’m ready to pick up and roll it out”.
That says a lot about what kind of impact that Keisel was able to have on the rookie, especially considering he essentially was afforded the opportunity to skip the offseason before he was re-signed, which bypasses a good chunk of the development of a rookie player.
But it’s not as though he is out on his own now when he’s on the field and away from his coaches, because he has Cameron Heyward looking over his shoulder now more than ever. He no doubt was already in the rookie’s ear last season, but he’s now the clear leader of the defensive line group with Keisel gone, and after having a breakout campaign in his first full year as a starter.
Following his comments about Keisel, Tuitt was asked about Heyward in his leadership role with the team and whether or not he could fill Keisel’s shoes. “Everybody knows Cam can do it”, he responded, saying “I definitely try to ricochet my game off of him”.
Heyward said that he saw improvement in Tuitt just from the first OTA session of the offseason. He made clear his expectation to see the second-year player to grow every season, saying that he has a better comfort level in the defense in year two, saying that “he’s able to run faster, he’s able to just play and light his hair on fire because he’s not thinking as much”.
Heyward himself is still an ascending player who remains on his rookie contract, at least until the front office is able to work out an extension, so it’s interesting to watch as he embraces the role of tutor for the 22-year-old Tuitt.