The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Will sixth-year defensive end Cameron Heyward break through into the public eye with a Pro Bowl nod in 2016?
Steelers fans have been well aware of the emergence, and presence, of defensive end Cameron Heyward for several years now. beginning the 2013 season as a nickel interior pass rusher, he was moved into the starting lineup after four games and registered five sacks. He has compiled another 14.5 sacks in the past two years as a full-time starter, giving him 19.5 sacks during the three-year period.
Those figures might not get him into the Hall of Fame, but he had led or tied for the team lead in sacks in each of the past two years, and his three-year sack total betters any similar period in the careers of Brett Keisel or Aaron Smith.
Of course, neither of them were given as consistent or as frequent opportunities to serve as a primary pass rusher, with the role of the defensive end evolving a bit in recent years in the Steelers’ scheme. But it is noteworthy because Smith made the Pro Bowl in 2004, and Keisel did so in 2010.
In 2004, Smith posted a career-high eight sacks to go along with 43 tackles and three forced fumbles. Keisel recorded only three sacks in 2010, but he also had two forced fumbles and an interception—and he did it in 11 games. Oh, and he had seven passes defensed.
I certainly have a hard time making the case that Heyward has not yet been deserving of Pro Bowl recognition. He had 59 tackles and seven passes defensed in 2013; 53 tackles and four passes defensed in 2014; and 54 tackles, two passes defensed, and a forced fumble last year. He is a leader and defensive tone setter.
The good news is that he is beginning to receive some recognition. He was recently voted on as the 88th of the top 100 players in the league on NFL Network, the first time in his career that he has made that list. That is a step in the right direction.
A player like Heyward is still asked to do a lot of unheralded grunt work that playmaking 3-4 defensive ends are able to escape, but his statistics are still comparable. And he still has another gear to hit. He could without question hit 10 sacks next year. I don’t know if that is what it will take, and nothing less, to get him the attention he deserves, but that is an attainable goal.