There is nothing that a coach, particularly a position coach, loves more than a player who makes his job easy. It is the position coaches, after all, who spend by far the most one-on-one time with the players, teaching them the fundamentals of their position, from a variety of techniques to understanding their assignments.
In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, he has that sort of player at his disposal for years now in defensive end Cameron Heyward, who in his seventh season in the league is playing arguably the best football of his career.
A first-round draft pick at the 31st spot in the 2011 NFL Draft, Heyward had both the blessing and curse of having to wait his turn for a starting spot. In fact, he did not move into the starting lineup until the second quarter of his third season in the league.
That was largely due simply to the fact that he spent his career playing behind Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and Ziggy Hood. Many did argue at the time that he should have been starting over Hood sooner, and in hindsight, that is certainly the case, but this is the story as it unfolded.
Sure, even though he may have had football in his family, and he came from Ohio State, a college program that runs a defense more similar than most to Pittsburgh’s, Heyward came into the league needing some refining. There are few who are able to step in and dominate right away.
But the team knew what they had and how that would aid him in becoming what he has today. They had the coach they needed to teach him in Mitchell, and they had the players around him, like Smith, Keisel, and, yes, Hood, to push him and show him how to do things on the field.
He took those lessons to heart and is today what Smith and Keisel were for Mitchell a decade or so ago. And in many ways, even more so. He is the Steelers’ defensive captain, a recognition neither of the others ever received.
One thing he lacks that the others had, though—other than a Super Bowl ring or two—is a Pro Bowl. Each of his predecessors made it. This year is Heyward’s best opportunity to crack through, provided that he has a strong finish to the season to maintain what he has been doing all year.
In spite of his high level of productivity, Mitchell appreciates most about Heyward the fact that he is not what he would call a selfish player. “Cam is not like that”, he said. “Cam wants to win. He doesn’t care if his number is called or not”.
While Heyward is, around the league, arguably one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league, he is and has become so much more than just a defensive starter for this team. He is more than just a leader, even, and is a core part of their heart and soul. He embodies every value the Rooney Family and Mike Tomlin could hope to instill in their players as both athletes and men.