Cameron Heyward is a perennial Pro Bowler. He is potentially on a Hall of Fame track. And yet he sat for most of his first two seasons. It wasn’t until early in his third season, during an extended losing skid, that the Pittsburgh Steelers made the change.
That was a somewhat different time for the team, of course. And the team was different. Drafted in the first round in 2011 by a team that had just played in the Super Bowl and won it a couple years earlier, everybody knew the Steelers had one of the best defenses in the league and that it wasn’t going to be easy to walk in there.
While Aaron Smith was quickly approaching the end of his career due to a series of injuries, and Casey Hampton would not be long after him, Brett Keisel remained for some years, as did Ziggy Hood, their first-round pick from two years earlier.
“These guys just went to the Super Bowl”, Heyward recalled during an appearance on Dave Dameshek’s podcast last month. He also shared what defensive line coach John Mitchell told him when he first got there all those years ago. “’You better get on those special teams because I already got my playmakers’”, he was told.
Mitchell built the defensive line of the championship teams, but he retired from on-field coaching duties at the end of the 2017 season. He retired from football altogether earlier this year. But it’s hard to imagine him not being a presence in some way, as he no doubt was these past several years.
“One thing I tried to do is just be a sponge”, Heyward said regarding his approach to coming in as a rookie to such an established, veteran team. “I knew whenever my number was gonna get called, I had to be ready. But these guys had already been cemented as the starters”.
It’s fair to say that he did a good job of that, even if it took him a couple of years to get his turn. In a later era of the Steelers, perhaps he would have been in the lineup earlier. But how do you take an Aaron Smith off the field if he’s healthy?
Heyward has played the Aaron Smith role to a number of players who have come and gone since then, most prominently Stephon Tuitt, whose career, unfortunately, took a different path a couple of years ago. One only hopes that he is on to better things for himself and his family after football.
And you know what? Heyward did play on special teams. In fact, he logged nearly 200 snaps on special teams during the 2013 season, the year he entered the starting lineup. Not only did he earn spots on the field goal kicking and blocking units, he was a wedge on kick returns—before the rules eliminated the wedge, of course.