Rebuilding A Champion: Heyward Foundational For Next Gen Defense

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.

Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.

So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.

For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.

After wrapping up the defensive side of the ball, we will finally turn to the defense, which has been the driving force behind the majority of the franchise’s six Super Bowl victories, and eight championship game appearances.

We start with the right defensive end position, which up until last season was manned by Brett Keisel since 2006, the year after their first championship of this generation. For a seventh-round pick, there’s no shame in taking five years to crack the starting lineup—the vast majority never make a career that long.

Once he got going, however, he got going, and though he never put up huge sack numbers—his only time eclipsing five sacks was in 2006 with 5.5—he generated consistent pressure, and over time became known for his ability to deflect passes at the line, knocking down 13 balls once in a two-year span.

While it was not his forte, Keisel played within his responsibilities against the run, and it didn’t take him long to put it all together, eventually earning Pro Bowl accolades in 2010—a year in which he played just 11 games.

Cameron Heyward is in many ways his spiritual successor, as, like Keisel, his energy on the field is the driving force for those around him, leading by example. His motor is infectious, and can already be seen influencing those around him.

Fresh off signing a new deal making him the highest-paid defender on the team after leading the defense with 7.5 sacks, Heyward is a true building block for the next great Steelers defense.

While Lawrence Timmons made the Pro Bowl last season, I suspect that most would agree with those who claim that Heyward is the Steelers’ best player on the defensive side of the ball at the moment. He is, in fact, one of the very few who could at least run neck and neck with the generation of players that the team is still trying to replace.

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