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 pessimist’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?
Cameron Heyward is a fan favorite of the Steelers faithful, and deservedly so. Not simply because he has the right back story to support such fervent support thanks to his lineage, but also because he has become the cornerstone of the team’s latest emerging defense, which placed well last season in scoring defense, sacks, and turnovers.
Heyward was a big part of that, contributing seven sacks of his own, and his pressure helped to contribute to those turnovers. As a player in the trenches, he also has a big impact on the opposing offense’s ability to drive down the field, and to succeed in short-yardage and goal line situations.
But it is one thing to be recognized within your own sphere, and to receive broader recognition throughout the league, especially while playing a position that is inherently biased against receiving the praise and accolades.
While his role as a 3-4 defensive end is perhaps not so limiting as it has been in the past, such a position is often not conducive to filling in the stats sheet. While the defensive line has taken on a greater playmaking role in recent years, it is still the linebackers that are the designed playmakers of the Steelers’ defense.
He took a strong step in the right direction on the recognition front when he landed on the NFL’s top 100 players list after having previously gone unranked, but that is still a far cry from being invited to attend the league’s Pro Bowl festivities. Only two Steelers ends have made the Pro Bowl this century.
In order for Heyward to transcend his position in terms of recognition, he also has to do so in terms of production, and we just so happen to live in an age where there are a handful of prominent 3-4 ends already doing so, such as J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, and Muhammad Wilkerson.
If he hopes to make his first Pro Bowl, he is undoubtedly facing an uphill battle he is not likely to reach because of the way the voting skews. Not that I expect he’ll be losing sleep over it. He doesn’t need the outside recognition to understand his value to the team, and to the fan base.