Cameron Heyward came to the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 31st overall NFL draft selection in 2011. At age 22, Heyward was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rookie with his whole professional football career in front of him.
Now 32, Heyward might not be as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed anymore, but he’s even hungrier than he was as a rookie.
Few people are as happy as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin with Heyward’s competitive appetite, especially given that he’s an old man now — in football years, that is.
What is it that allows Heyward to continue playing at an elite level 11 seasons into his career?
“I have no idea. I’m gonna continue to joke about Cam’s age,” Tomlin said with a smile during his September 14 press conference.
“We’re all motivated in different ways. Cam is one of those guys that’s always looking for reasons to rise up in the face of something,” said Tomlin. “You throw his age in his face, and even though he knows what you’re doing, he has to respond. That’s the competitor that man is.”
“Please keep talking about [his age],” Tomlin continued. “We fully expect him to continue to do what it is that he’s doing and has done for us, which is not only make quality plays but be a quality leader.”
PFF’s Highest-Graded Player
Heyward is like a fine wine; he only gets better with age. That’s a rarity in the NFL — as wear and tear take its toll, performance tends to decline.
But, no… not Heyward. He pressurized Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen a staggering 12 times in Week 1. This performance earned Heyward a Pro Football Focus grade of 95.3, the highest of any player on defense or offense.
T.J. Watt and Melvin Ingram joined Heyward on the fun, as both linebackers applied eight pressures each on Allen.
“We stress getting four-man pressure,” Heyward said in his postgame press conference on September 12. “You can’t just rely on your blitzes. You’ve got to be able to mix it up. When we’re hitting home with four men, it makes us a harder team to beat.”
Less Is More
All of that production came off just 66%of defensive snaps (Heyward averaged 83% in 2020), per Pro Football Reference.
In a September 14 interview with Pittsburgh’s WDVE radio, Heyward said he told Tomlin and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar that he wanted to play fewer snaps.
“You get to a point after the season where you’re like, ‘Wow, I can believe I played that many snaps.'”
Heyward shared that playing less and, thus, staying fresh through a 17-game season comes from the ability to trust others. “I do think we have the guys that can do it,” he said. “A lot of our guys, especially in the trenches, are battle-tested. I don’t need to play every single down or every single third down.”
Late Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White’s success with playing less and producing more is what Heyward said inspired him to do the same. “He won the MVP at 37 years old and was playing fewer reps than he ever had before,” Heyward said. “That’s because he was fresh in the fourth quarter, and he was able to dominate.”
Speaking of Dominate
Heyward has been elected to four consecutive Pro Bowls dating back to 2017 and has the numbers to back it up. He has registered 233 tackles (140 solo, 44 for loss) and 82 quarterback hits in that span. His 33.0 sacks in four seasons included a career-high 12.0 in 2017.
Overall, in 150 games, Heyward has amassed 455 tackles (289 solo, 87 for loss), 59.0 sacks and an astounding 137 quarterback hits.
The Steelers only one week into the regular season, but if Heyward’s mantra of “play less, produce more“ continues through the season, we know who the Steelers’ MVP might be.