Steelers’ leader Cameron Heyward and his teammates along the defensive line were a fortunate group this offseason. The entire three-man starting group of Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu returned from 2020 to 2021, a dominant group ranking among the league’s best, even by Pro Football Focus this morning.
The other areas of the defense, though, are far from as fortunate. The linebacking room lost edge rusher Bud Dupree as a free agent to Tennessee. The starting secondary was gutted, Pittsburgh releasing one of the top-performing corners in the NFL in Steven Nelson, and watching talented slot corner Mike Hilton join the rival Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent.
The Steelers working at OTAs starting today and into this coming season feature new projected starters to replace those players. A former first-round pick drafted to start for the team, Heyward is ready to see his teammates seize the same opportunity he did.
“You know, it’s always a challenge. You lose guys, great guys, every year. That’s the nature of the game,” Heyward said in an interview provided by the team Tuesday. “This creates an opportunity for guys to step in. Alex Highsmith is a guy I look at, his second year. He really got to play his first year, and this is the second year where we look for him to blossom. A guy like Cam Sutton who’s always been our utility guy, be able to put at the nickel, the slot, the dime. Well now, let’s see if he can play full-time corner outside. You look at a guy like James Pierre stepping in. These are guys that were depth pieces last year that now we get to elevate to the next step. But now our depth gets questioned. This is an opportunity for those guys to step up.”
Heyward in his answer ran down all three of the team’s projected starters to replace Dupree, Nelson, and Hilton. Highsmith, a third-round pick out of Charlotte in 2020, performed well after assuming Dupree’s role late last season, following an injury to the latter.
Sutton earned a two-year, $9 million contract this offseason for his work as a third and fourth corner the prior seasons. With that deal came a promotion to Nelson’s role as the No. 2 corner opposite Joe Haden. Pierre, an undrafted player out of Florida Atlantic last draft, worked his way up the depth chart in 2020. By the end of the season, he was taking playoff reps while recent third-round pick Justin Layne didn’t. He and Layne will compete for Hilton’s role as the team’s third corner.
All three of Highsmith, Sutton, and Pierre have invaluable time in camps and OTAs this summer to receive coaching and make themselves ready to start in key roles Week 1 on a newer-looking Steeler defense.
“I think we find good depth by using this time out here and getting ready for minicamps and training camp. I don’t worry about it, but I’m excited about it. This is a chance for new guys to step up,” Heyward said.
It was back in 2011 when Heyward was a rookie, picked 31st overall, entering camp with an opportunity to learn and become a starter. Back then, he was learning from veteran linemen like Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Brett Keisel. Similar to Sutton, Heyward’s path into a starting role took multiple seasons. He learned for two years before assuming the starting end job in 2013. He has not relinquished his spot since, something Pittsburgh is hoping Highsmith, Sutton, and Pierre do.
Defense wasn’t the only side of the ball Heyward addressed. Earlier in his interview when defending quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Heyward referenced some of the team’s changes on the offense, both new players coming in like Najee Harris at running back and Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr. along the O-Line, and a new scheme being used.
“You bring in guys and I know our offensive line is in flux, but they’re going to be better because they’re learning a different system. We bring in another running back, our receivers are a year older, we bring in another tight end. All these different things I think can help Ben, and you know, I’m excited for him. As a defense, when the offense can stay on the field, that lets us know that we’re okay.”
New starters and depth pieces who hope to become starters in the coming seasons will continue to work during OTAs over the next two weeks, before the team holds training camp later this summer.