It may not have seemed like it at the time, but in a sense, the pectoral injury that veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward suffered in the second half of the season a year ago was a bit of a blessing in disguise for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or, perhaps more accurately, there was at least a silver lining to the dim cloud that sidelined their ironman defensive lineman, who had never missed a game in his first five seasons.
You see, the absence of Heyward on the field forced then-third-year defensive end Stephon Tuitt to assert himself into a role of leadership along the defensive line, where he became responsible for boosting the performances of those less experienced—though not necessarily younger—than he.
Without Heyward, the Steelers outside of Tuitt were down to the likes of L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave as a rookie, Daniel McCullers, veteran journeyman Ricardo Mathews, and rookie undrafted practice-squad call-up Johnny Maxey.
Consider for a second the fact that Tuitt, of that group, is the second-youngest, behind only Maxey. Tuitt is entering his fourth season this year, but is still younger than third-year L.T. Walton, and younger than second-year Javon Hargrave.
But he is the experienced player of the group, having more than two seasons’ worth of starting experience under his belt. So when Heyward went down, it was up to the former second-round pick to assume the mantle.
The son of Iron Head Heyward still managed to mentor Tuitt and the rest from the sidelines, but it was Tuitt who was putting together the battle plan on the field, as well as setting the tone. Now with the former Notre Dame star sitting out spring practices as he recovers from thumb surgery, he, too, is leading from an observer’s role.
“It’s a new role for me”, he admitted to reporters yesterday during the first day of mandatory minicamp. “For me to do my thing on the sideline, talk to the younger guys, let them know how the game is going to be, is important”.
He also acknowledged that the sudden handing of the reins last season was important to him last year. “It helped me grow a lot”, he said, adding, “not having that person to ask what the play is and you having to be the guy that knows the play, it was a lot of growth for me. From that point, I just grew tremendously”.
Taking pride and ownership in his role, he told reporters that he “helped lead the team to the AFC Championship”, and that “we were becoming a dominant defense until, unfortunately, we played the Patriots”.
“I learned a lot, grew a lot”, he said. “I learned my teammates even more than I did before”. And the Steelers’ defensive line group, and defense as a whole, will be only further enriched because of the trials that they went through involuntarily during the 2016 season.