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Heyward back on field for Steelers OTA sessions

The captain was back on the field Tuesday with his teammates as the Steelers began their third and final week of voluntary OTAs at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

After sitting out the first two weeks of workouts, Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward was back on the field for the first time since the 2023 season ended.

And he was happy to be there, especially after playing through a painful right groin injury last season that cost him six games and was never fully healed.

"The groin feels great," said Heyward, who won the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award this offseason. "You know, I can't wait to not talk about my groin. But I'm feeling good. I'm able to run. I'm able to do everything I want. There's no limitations. (I've) got most of my strength. It's just about getting the cardio down.

"I've been pushing it, trying to get stronger, trying to strengthen everything. Now, it's just time to condition it, make sure it can be up to these conditions and then training camp and then the season."

Heyward suffered the injury in the Steelers' regular season opener against San Francisco last season, then missed the next six games after having surgery to repair the issue. But he was largely playing on one leg as the injury robbed him of his typical strength.

"It was more of a just a game-time decision every week," Heyward said of playing through the issue. "I wasn't practicing on Thursdays. That was the first time in my career I've really had to really just bite the bullet and take that approach. And then it was just responding to a game. After the first game against Tennessee, it was just trying to climb up and dig myself out of a hole. But I wanted to get back. And I felt like I could, but I knew I wasn't gonna be at 100 percent, but I had to push it to be there for my team."

Heyward returned and started the next 10 games and the team's playoff loss to the Bills, finishing the season with 33 tackles, including six for a loss, two sacks and three quarterback hits. The numbers pale in comparison to what he had done in the previous two seasons, when the 35-year-old led all defensive tackles with a combined 163 tackles to go along with 20.5 sacks and 40 quarterback hits.

But he had surgery on his left groin after the season to "tighten things up" on the other side after overcompensating for his injury and now feels he's ready to get back to playing at a dominant level.

Last season broke a run of six consecutive Pro Bowls for Heyward, who also has been voted All-Pro four times, as well.

"I think there's not a lot of history behind it," Heyward said of performing at a high level into his mid-to-late 30s. "But for me, I'm not looking to be like anybody else. My game is different from everybody else in this league. I like to think I can play the run and the pass. And that's why I'm different. Last year, my team just brought to my attention, you watch powerlifters and my game is built on power and technique. And those guys go into their 40s.

"And so that's what kind of research I'm doing behind the scenes. We'll see what happens. There's not a lot of history, but I'm here to make history, and I'm here to win a Super Bowl here and have a great season."

That's his goal.

Coming off the surgery, Heyward likely wouldn't have done a lot of work in the first two weeks of OTA sessions. Instead, he stayed away from the facility and worked out with former teammate Tyson Alualu, something he's done for the better part of the past decade in the offseason.

But even that wears thin after a while.

And with the Steelers employing a whole new training staff for 2024, practices aren't quite the same as when Heyward last suited up. That's why he enjoyed Tuesday's workouts.

"We've got a new got a new training staff, and I'm still learning to warm up a little differently," Heyward said. "But I love that. Just getting after it. Learn the new guys and going through the same drills I've been doing by myself. I actually liked having more people around because I was kind of going stir crazy when it's just you and another guy. You're like, 'Damn, I gotta go back up for another rep already?' So you know it's nice to be up here and get a chance to be with my guys."

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Even though he hadn't been with the team the past couple of weeks, he had been in constant communication with the team and his teammates. He watched practice tapes and offered tips and pointers.

"Whether it's on the field, off the field, communication, dinners, just, you letting them know, I'm available for them," Heyward said. "I think it can be something as little as just the steps on field goal protection. I've been doing it for 13 years. It's still crazy. I'm still doing it. But those are the types of things I'm just giving guidance to. And then off the field, it's what to expect around the city. Where should you be. Where you shouldn't be. How you can help yourself. You know, the little things."

Those are some of the intangible things Heyward brings to the equation for the Steelers.

They're important. But so is the more tangible production. And that's what Heyward is pushing toward getting back.

He wants to finish his stellar career with the Steelers and sees himself playing at least three more seasons.

"I want to be valued at my position," Heyward said. "I understand I am coming off a rough season, but I don't think it's a step down of where I can play. I think when I'm at the top of my game, I'm still a top-five player at my position."