Shortly after entering the NFL as a first-round draft pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-time First Team All-Pro star defensive lineman Cameron Heyward was relatively limited as a pass rusher overall, which matched the way the game was played early in his career.
Heyward was more focused on stopping the run and being a big body along the defensive line for the Steelers, much like Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and more were asked to be for the Steelers for years. Things changed once Heyward stepped into the starting lineup as the game became a much more pass-happy league overall, forcing the Steelers’ star to develop a pass rush plan.
Dating back to the 2014 season, which happened to be Heyward’s second full season as a starter, the Steelers’ defensive captain has recorded at least 7.0 sacks in six of seven seasons not cut short by injury. Appearing on the Mina Kimes Show podcast Tuesday morning, Heyward stated that being able to be as free as a butterfly and having multiple moves at his disposal has helped him transition from a bull rusher early in his career into the elite-level pass rusher he is today.
“I’ll be honest, like in college, I had no pass rush game whatsoever and you know, pass rush has taken on a different level in the past what, 10 years?” Heyward said to Kimes, according to audio from the podcast. “I think now I’m just way more savvy. I understand what works for me, understand how I can beat an offensive lineman. I can use things that they wanna do against me, and I just think technique wise, it’s better than it’s ever been for me.”
The numbers back up Heyward’s thoughts there, especially as he’s racked up seasons of 12.0 and 10.0 sacks in two of the last four seasons, with a nine-sack season mixed in for good measure. With the Steelers now asking their defensive linemen to shoot gaps and really penetrate up the field, it’s unlocked high-caliber play from Heyward and guys like Stephon Tuitt and even Chris Wormley last season.
It all comes back to Heyward being able to add moves to his repertoire though, in large part due to his work with renowned pass rush coach Chuck Smith, whom Heyward works out with during the offseason.
“I like to think I mix it up every now and then, and that saves me in the game,” Heyward added. “I don’t have to just rely on my strength now. I can go out there be as free as a butterfly and have a multitude of moves that help free me up. And, I get to have more fun. I don’t have to be as monotonous and just a bull rusher.”
Heyward is now one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, especially from the interior defensive line, where he lines up when the Steelers are in sub-package football. He’s too strong for interior offensive linemen and too fast at times off the football, making him a seemingly impossible package to deal with one-on-one.
That’s a credit to his work ethic and overall development, which has certainly rubbed off of fellow teammates over the years.