The Pittsburgh Steelers have committed a lot of money to their two starting defensive ends. It only goes without saying that they expect a lot of production out of the pair. They got that out of Cameron Heyward in 2017, leading the team with 12 sacks and earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl while being listed as a first-team All-Pro.
As for Stephon Tuitt, he celebrated his newfound windfall after signing a big contract just before the regular season started by partially tearing his bicep on the second play of the opener. He would miss the rest of that game and the next two because of it, and then another two games, while playing the rest of the time through the injury, which drastically limited his arm strength and clearly affected his performance.
But he took inspiration from watching Heyward come back from an injury-riddled season to post a career year last year and plans to do the same in 2018. In fact, both of them expect to have a huge impact this year, and for however long they can continue to play.
“We know the damage we can do”, Tuitt told Jeremy Fowler recently in speaking to the reporter for ESPN. “If we can build and continue to work together, we can have a big season”. But Heyward made it clear that they are not driven by individual success. There’s a clear goal they’re chasing: Super Bowl, like the Steel Curtain led the team to in the 1970s.
“We take it very personally”, he said. “The tradition we want to set is we want to be back for those Super Bowl reunions at some point, where you get to talk about those fun memories. If not, you didn’t get the job done”.
His predecessors did. The ones that he learned from. Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and Casey Hampton won two Super Bowls with the team and served a big role in them (though not so the first time around for Keisel, who was a backup at the time).
The two talented defensive ends have forged a close relationship. A brotherly one, and Heyward is the older brother, he said. “I’m hard on Tuitt sometimes because I know what he is capable of. I know how great of a player he can be, and I just want to see him succeed”.
From a purely physical and talent perspective, Tuitt is the ‘higher upside’ player of the two, but Heyward has been the more accomplished of the two to date. Still, the former is incredibly young and with a lot of football left in front of him.
There’s no reason that this shouldn’t be his true breakout season provided that he stays healthy. The front line is in a good position right now with everybody at the top of their games, and there is reason for optimism from the edge rushers as well, which will only help add to the chaos and perhaps lead to more one-on-one opportunities for the ends.