The Pittsburgh Steelers obviously expected Cameron Heyward to be good when they drafted him in the first round in 2011. I don’t know that they expected him to be as good as he has become, both on and off the field. Entering his 10th season in 2020, he may arguably have already cemented himself as the best 3-4 defensive end the team has ever had, and they have some legitimate names in their history.
And in recent years, the rest of the league has begun to take notice as well. Picking up his game in terms of sacks, registering 29 over that span, Heyward has been named to three consecutive Pro Bowls and has been awarded first-team All-Pro honors twice, in 2017 and 2019, picking up nine sacks and a career-high 83 tackles.
That’s not quite enough for Heyward, though. He told Zach Gelb of his ambitions, “I want to be the number one guy” among interior defenders. “I know that [Aaron Donald] is the number one guy, and everybody looks at him, but I want to set the precedent for a real 3-4 defensive end. Those guys go underappreciated whether it’s Aaron Smith or Brett Keisel or Kimo Von Oelhoffen. Those are guys that have always stuck out to me at the position I play. I got a lot more to prove”.
Heyward is set to turn 31 in May. He is currently entering the final year of a five-year contract extension that he signed prior to his fifth-year option season back in 2015, and presumably he should be expected to sign another extension later this year.
Outside of one year in 2016, he has been the face of durability. He has played all 16 games in every season but that one, and rarely even misses a snap due to injury. In fact, for the most part, he really just doesn’t come off the field very much.
That’s in part because he and the team know he’s capable, but also because they both know it’s needed from him. The Steelers have relied upon his dominance to get to even where they have gotten to. Which, as Heyward knows as well as anyone, is nowhere far enough. They haven’t won a postseason game in three years.
“I’ve got to get Super Bowls, because I don’t get measured as long as I don’t have one”, he said. The Steelers last appeared in a Super Bowl the year before he was drafted in 2010, losing to the Green Bay Packers. They have made it to the AFC Championship game once, in 2016, while Heyward was injured.
They have played in the Divisional Round three times since then. Also not nearly often enough, and that was in three consecutive seasons from 2015 to 2017. They have mist the postseason entirely in each of the past two years, in spite of the phenomenal play from Heyward.