After seeing his first two seasons go by in a blur, without starting a game or seeing extensive playing time, former number one draft pick Cam Heyward knew he wanted more.
He spent the 2013 offseason committed to making sure he was ready to take the next step, spending time in the weight room, watching film, doing everything in his power to prove he was ready to be in the starting lineup. But when the season started, it wasn't exactly what he had hoped for. He was still rotating in behind Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood at defensive end.
"I just put pressure on myself," said Heyward. "Having those first two years go by and not playing that much, I really wanted to take advantage of the offseason and give myself a chance to take advantage of any opportunity. It didn't start off the way I wanted but I finally got the playing time."
Something changed after the first four games. With the team 0-4, the defense needed a shot in the arm and Heyward was given the chance to provide it, taking over at starting left defensive end for Hood.
Heyward delivered. He finished the season seventh on the team in tackles with 63, and was tied for second with linebacker LaMarr Woodley with five sacks. He also was credited with a team-high 31 quarterback pressures, making his offseason efforts pay off.
"I started to feel more comfortable, gain more confidence, better knowledge of the playbook, got stronger and faster in the weight room and took advantage of it," said Heyward. "You get that with playing more too. Those are things I always tried to work at and I was able to do that and take advantage."
While Heyward said he would grade himself out with a C for the season, the progress that he made since he first became a fixture in the starting lineup was definitely noticeable. He was all over the field the last few games, making a considerable impact on the defense.
"Sometimes when you first get out there you are running around like a chicken with your head cut off," said Heyward. "I thought the game slowed down a lot more. I think one thing I noticed you get to look at formations and see what they want to run against you. You start to pick up things like that, play tendencies more, and take more risks. I was able to pick that up late.
"At first you are thinking so much your head is all over the place. Now you can play off instinct, react more. You are able to play freely and understand the game more. You are able to play faster. It's that way with any young player. You are a much better team when you are able to do that."
Heyward weighed in on a few other things, from sacks, to special teams to the 2013 season in general:
* On the Steelers only having 34 sacks this season: "When I heard it, it was kind of alarming. We had opportunities to get more. Teams are going to throw the ball quick on us when we bring pressure. It goes hand-in-hand. We have to continue to improve on that. We have guys coming back next year. I expect a lot out of Jarvis (Jones). We have a great group of guys and whoever is here we are going to get rolling."
* On what Keisel, who is an unrestricted free agent, means to him: "He has meant a lot to me…being a mentor to me, a friend, his passion for this game, being a great person off the field and in the community. He is an all around role model the way he carries himself, cares about the team. He shows you how a team leader is supposed to be. If you care about something that is how you are supposed to care about it. Whether you are hurt or not, you never give up. It wasn't ideal this season, but he gave it all he had. That last game he was on fire and I was happy to see him bring that to the table. We all appreciate it and we love him for it."
- On playing special teams while starting, including field goal, field goal block and kickoff return units:** "Me and Coach (Mike) Tomlin talk about it. He always checks my appetite to see if I want to do it. I enjoy it. I might be more winded, but we have other guys that rotate on kickoff return. Whatever it takes, if I have to play five positions I will do it. I learned both sides on the line being behind Keisel and Ziggy. Whatever I have to do I will be the utility belt."
- On looking back at the 2013 season: "I am still sore about not making the playoffs. That is the ultimate goal, to win Super Bowls around here. Individually I made strides but I am only here for one reason and that is to win the Super Bowl.
"I know statistically it wasn't our best year as far as sacks but I thought we did a decent job of getting after quarterbacks. I think as a team we can continue with being battled tested. Our backs were against the wall throughout the whole season. We can take it into next season and grow from it. We have to win every game. We have to start fresh, not dig a big hole. If we can eliminate the 0-4 start, big plays against us, we can be a good defense as well as a good team."