Camp Tour: The Steelers want to play the ‘villain’ in 2022
Pittsburgh is still striving to be different in an AFC loaded with star power on offense. Will it work? Yes, if Cam Heyward has his way.
LATROBE, Pa. — No head coach in the NFL cultivates real relationships with his players like Mike Tomlin. The guy who loves to say “the standard is the standard” truly has set a standard for other coaches to emulate. He is disciplined. He instills a sense of fear. But players also feel like they can walk into his office to discuss literally anything going on in their lives. A fine line most coaches only dream of.
So, when Tomlin makes a request like this, you’re damn right the team’s leader is going to listen and do everything in his power to put that request into action.
After one training camp practice this week — his bear paw-sized hands covered in tape, steam emanating from his head — the 33-year-old Cam Heyward begins our conversation by saying, yes, he has met with Tomlin several times and Tomlin keeps telling him that this 2022 Steelers defenses must “play the villain.” The AFC effectively became an arm’s race this past offseason with teams doing everything in their power to win the shootout.
Pittsburgh did not engage. Pittsburgh wants to crush spirits.
“We’ve got to be the Black Hat. We have to be the Party Crashers,” Heyward says. “Nobody likes to see defense in this day in age. But we’ve got to be the guys who stir the drink and are the reason why we win and create a lot of havoc doing it. I know it’s over-confidence but I believe we have the guys to do it.”
A bold strategy, Cotton. Very bold.
Flags. Fines. Wrapping their loving arms around gambling apps. Every action the league takes compels teams to do everything in their power to find star power at quarterback and turn games into track meets. The Steelers signed Mitchell Trubisky on the cheap, drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round and clearly have no plans to play the sort of game we saw in the AFC divisional round between Buffalo and Kansas City. Yeah, the quarterback play was fun that night between Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes but defense was clearly optional.
The Steelers need to get more out of the passing game than they did in Ben Roethlisberger’s twilight season, but they want to drag teams into a bareknuckle brawl.
That’s been the case for a while around here, but these Steelers are hoping to catapult into an elite stratosphere. It’s plausible. This unit boasts the best defensive player in football (T.J. Watt), a top 3 interior player (Heyward), a top 3 safety (Minkah Fitzpatrick) and colossal upgrades at both cornerback (Levi Wallace) and inside linebacker (Myles Jack). The Steelers have a shot to field their best defense since the group that reached the Super Bowl in 2008 and 2010. Nobody’s talking much about this possibility because it doesn’t sell. Certainly not like Tyreek Hill backflipping for the fans Miami or Russell Wilson strutting into camp in his own jersey or Davante Adams proclaiming Derek Carr a Hall of Famer.
All of the other teams in the conference had the transactional fun over the offseason.
It’s offense the masses want. It’s fantasy football. It’s betting the over because who has fun ever betting the under? Heyward is well aware.
“You walk out of the stadium and it’s 13-10,” Heyward says, “no team feels good about that.”
A Steelers training camp practice in Latrobe reflects a 13-10 ethos, too. The quarterbacks have all been struggling mightily but that’s also a product of how Tomlin designs practice and, of course, the fact that Diontae Johnson (contract), Chase Claypool (shoulder) and Pat Freiermuth (hamstring) are sidelined. The Steelers hit more than any team in the league and actually green-light tackling. Whereas coaches are quick to blow plays dead in other NFL cities, they let defenders take ball-carriers to the ground here because Tomlin believes the body must be conditioned for violence.
And when the running backs and linebackers smacked each other around in a 1-on-1 blocking drill the first day of camp, Tomlin was in the middle of the mayhem screaming and swearing and telling combatants to run it back.
Dig the long ball? Heyward apologizes.
“We have all these fans out here,” he says, “and I don’t think they’re cheering on the defense. Sorry to say it. But I kind of like it that way.”
Told that there was one fan trying to start a “De-Fence” cheer on the nearby hill when the first 11-on-11 period began, Heyward is slightly encouraged.
“It’s getting there. We’ll turn ‘em.”
We’ve seen the Steelers defense excel in spurts the last few years. This unit carried a Duck Hodges-quarterbacked bunch to eight wins in 2019. Last season, Watt and Heyward took over a few games but the unit also ranked dead-last against the run. Entering his 12th season, Heyward admits his defense still hasn’t put a complete season together. The new faces should help in 2022 and he wants this group to take on a “Steel Curtain”-, a “Blitzburgh”-like identity.
He has no catchy nickname for the defense yet. That’ll come if they are able to shut down Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson in the AFC North.
He’ll have a say in the matter, too.
Heyward has been one of the most underrated defensive players the last half-decade. After totaling 89 tackles (53 solo) with 10 sacks and 16 batted/deflected balls in 2021, he adamantly believes he is the best defensive tackle in the sport. That’s why Heyward was quick to respond to the excellent Jeremy Fowler positional rankings at ESPN. After talking to executives, coaches, scouts and players around the NFL, Fowler posted rankings at each position and deemed Heyward No. 5, behind DeForest Buckner, Chris Jones, Jeffery Simmons and Aaron Donald.
Donald may be universally touted as an all-time great — especially after getting a ring — but Heyward doesn’t mince words. He believes he is the more complete player.
“I work too hard to not be No. 1. It’s as simple as that,” Heyward says. “It’s not a slight at other guys. But I put in the work during the offseason. I study my craft. When I go into a season — and I have the season I did — I view myself as No. 1. I’m a complete player. I play in the 3-4 and the 4-3. You don’t see many guys doing that. I’m disruptive. I run to the ball. I’m not finesse — I’m a power guy.”
Interior players who eat up double-teams have been ignored for decades in Pittsburgh’s 3-4. It’s a shameless profession. Heyward lists their names off, before mentioning Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata and San Francisco’s Justin Smith as two more studs that never got their due. The fact that Heyward both gets teammates free while still getting free himself is not normal. Usually a player at his position logs three or four sacks a season.
“Sometimes we look at the way a guy penetrates,” he continues. “Man, if I’m holding up two and still penetrating, what are we talking about?
“I’m a complete player and I don’t shy away from it.”
This career arc is a strange one. Heyward has only become more dominant this side of 30.
After starting his career with six Pro Bowl-less seasons, he’s made it five straight years with three first-team All Pro selections. He’s up to 43 sacks in his last 79 games. The key is taking less time off in the offseason. He treated the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl weeks this offseason as vacation time and immediately dove back into training. Not easy with a wife and three kids. His wife’s always telling him he needs to take a break, but Heyward genuinely feels like he’s still peaking and does not want to spoil the opportunity of a lifetime.
He views both the Super Bowl and Canton as realistic goals.
“I want my resume to speak for itself,” he says.
Yet, for some reason, this isn’t a name you hear much nationally. He’s not choking teammates in practice like Donald. Nor is he nearly as vocal as the Chiefs’ Jones or Titans’ Simmons. So, in 2022, Heyward is starting to tweak his public image a bit. In July, he launched a new podcast, “Not Just Football.” Maybe speaking up a little more will get folks to notice his game at defensive tackle.
“Some are sexy. Some are not,” he says.
“We’re trying to sex it up! I’m trying to make myself more appealing!”
At full strength, this offense will give whoever’s playing quarterback a strong supporting cast. Rookie George Pickens joins Johnson and Claypool at wide receiver. But in temperament and style, nothing is changing around here. It’s as true now as it was back in the 90s with Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene screaming off the edge. The Steelers want to dictate the terms of physicality on Sunday, and it all starts with the head coach. That’s why Heyward was so quick to fire back at Roethlisberger when the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback insinuated that younger players have been coddled by Tomlin.
To Heyward, the culture in Pittsburgh is built on tough love. He still gets nervous during film sessions. As longtime Steelers guard Ramon Foster detailed on the Go Long Podcast, Tomlin isn’t afraid to aggressively call players out and Heyward admits he experiences this anxiety himself. (“You start slouching in your chair—‘Oh god, oh god,’” he says.) The best way he can describe the coach is that Tomlin has grown with the times while still hanging onto his principles.
And this summer? Tomlin isn’t sugarcoating anything.
He wants this team to play the bad guy.
“A lot went wrong last year,” Heyward says, “and we’re not going to shy away from it. We have to continue to keep getting better. The cool thing about here is there’s a history set. And Ben’s part of that history. It’s up to us to get to that history. I can’t say enough about what those guys have taught me over the years. But these guys have to lay the roots. These guys have to buy in, week-in and week-out and show that we’re playing Steeler football.”
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As beat writer Mark Kaboly noted at The Athletic, Trubisky started the “Seven Shots” goal-like drill 0 of 16 and is 4 of 23 overall. But I think QB coach Mike Sullivan is being honest when he tells Kaboly that Trubisky is right on track. It’s foolish to freak out over these numbers considering the Steelers are still installing their offense, without their top three weapons and, as noted, the defense is cut loose. TJ Watt has been wrecking drills.
Part of the confidence in Trubisky has to be the reality that Pickett isn’t close to being ready. Like so many rookie quarterbacks (see: the 2021 class), the game seems so, so fast for him right now. Pickett looked hesitant to drive the ball downfield and skittish in the pocket. Again, it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from a rookie’s first week of practice. But this is also true: If Pickett was tearing it up, we’d certainly be talking about it.
Shocked by how large of a human being rookie receiver George Pickens is.
We hung out with Levi Wallace a couple months back to talk about “13 seconds” and how his life led to this crossroad. The defense’s improvement may hinge on his play. Tomlin has a long history of developing corners and letting those corners handle their business 1 on 1 against top receivers. Wallace should be a major improvement over James Pierre.
Hey, here’s a familiar name: Jace Sternberger. Remember him, Packers fans? Sternberger actually joined our 2021 draft extravaganza. He’s in Pittsburgh now getting valuable reps with Freiermuth sidelined. Don’t be surprised if he makes the 53-man roster and finds a complementary role. Sternberger has been making several eye-popping plays in 1-on-1 route running drills and, when it came to that 1-on-1 blocking drill? The 2019 third-round pick asked to face Alex Highsmith and held his own.
One more note. Cannot wait to share my conversation with Watt. We chatted for close to 45 minutes, and it was fascinating.