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Labriola On

Labriola on Cam, 'sign somebody,' taunting

Ready or not, here it comes:

NOV. 14:

The outcome of the game was disappointing, to be kind, being that it wasn't a win over the 0-8 Detroit Lions, being that in the game those Lions had amassed 201 yards rushing (9.6 average) with 12:09 still to play in the third quarter, and being that it had been accomplished 22 years after Barry Sanders announced his retirement.

As the afternoon wore on, the defense was depleted after both Joe Haden and T.J. Watt had been knocked out of the game with injuries, but when the team needed someone to step up and make a play, Cam Heyward, in fact, made two. Either could have been the catalyst for a comeback victory for the Steelers, had there been some appropriate support from the offense.

With 4:14 left in the fourth quarter of a 16-16 tie, the Lions faced a third-and-12 from their 11-yard line. Heyward broke through and sacked Jared Goff for a 9-yard loss back to the 2-yard line from where the Lions had to punt. After the punt, the Steelers offense took over at the 48-yard line … and promptly went three-and-out.

Then in the first possession of overtime, the Lions had a third-and-7 from the Steelers 41-yard line. Again, Heyward broke through and sacked Goff for another 9-yard loss. That eliminated any thought Detroit Coach Dan Campbell might have had about going for it on fourth down, and so the Lions punted again.

On the second play after the punt, Diontae Johnson fumbled at the end of a 39-yard catch-and-run, and the Lions recovered at their 45-yard line.

Heyward never ducks the media after a tough loss, and he presents himself to take questions after the tough tie with the Lions. During his eight minutes sitting behind the microphone, Heyward spoke like the defensive captain he is – echoing much of the message Coach Mike Tomlin had delivered to open the session, assigning no individual blame, pointing no fingers, speaking in terms of "we" instead of "me." Nothing Heyward says makes news that night or the next day.

NOV. 16

Tuesday is the players' day off, but Heyward is spending part of his free time hosting his annual Holiday Food Distribution that will distribute the makings of Thanksgiving dinner to 200 families before the night is done. The food distribution is done in conjunction with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and Heyward does more than just lend his name.

He's in the middle of the action. Packing boxes, engaging with those receiving the packages, and because it's Heyward, he's part of a team of Steelers that he undoubtedly organized.

"Just giving back," said Heyward about his annual involvement. "I like to interact with the people of Pittsburgh, and around the holidays, people look forward to this."

NOV. 18

Middle of the week, in-season days start early for NFL players, and Heyward's morning includes another media session, this one via Zoom. Two days earlier, Coach Mike Tomlin had announced an injury report that included seven players, with one of them being safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who won't play in the upcoming Sunday night game against the Chargers after testing positive for COVID.

Heyward is asked about that, and his answers are equal parts supportive and challenging. Just as if they were written for him by Tomlin, which they most certainly were not.

"I think we're going to have to have guys step up, not exactly sure who, but that's why you have a 53-man roster," said Heyward. "There are going to be injuries. There are going to be times where you're not 100 percent on defense or offense. The d-line has to step up a bunch, inside linebackers, corners. We all have to do our part to make sure we minimize the impact of Minkah not playing."

During his news conference on Tuesday, Tomlin had mentioned the possibility of an increased role for Tre Norwood as a result of Fitzpatrick's absence, and Heyward naturally was asked about that.

"When he got drafted Coach Tomlin called him the Swiss Army Knife," said Heyward. "He has been that for us. Every time I see Tre, I tell him, 'tighten up, Tre.' I feel like we get out there every time and he's tightened. He knows where he needs to be. He's a young kid who's always on the move and always on the rise. He does so much for this team. A lot of it is under the radar. I think he's going to be a valuable piece of the equation down the road."

About a month from now, Steelers players will be asked to vote for their 2021 team MVP, and what they should consider is voting for someone who makes significant contributions on the field; who represents himself and them and the entire Steelers organization is a positive way in the community; who steps up whenever asked to speak to the media, even under difficult circumstances, and often so they don't have to be the ones to do it; and who understands the role of a leader is to be supportive and/or challenging depending on what the situation demands.

In other words, vote for Cam Heyward. If I had a vote, that's what I would do. It's time he is recognized.

That's the typical fan reaction nowadays every time a player is injured. It's the fantasy football mentality. Just go out and get someone from outside the organization, sign him, even if he's being viewed favorably through a 10-year old lens.

When the perception late this summer was that the Steelers were thin at cornerback, it was "sign Richard Sherman." When the Tennessee Titans acquired wide receiver Julio Jones, it was assumed the balance of power in the AFC had shifted dramatically to Nashville as a result.

Well, the Titans indeed might turn out to be the best team in the AFC, but that has nothing to do with Jones, who was placed on injured reserve last Saturday. With that move, Jones, 32, has played in 15 of his teams' previous 28 games and scored three touchdowns since the start of the 2020 season. And all that "cost" the Titans was a second-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Sherman, 33, injured a calf during pregame warmups last Sunday, shortly after coming off the injury report with a bad hamstring that had kept him sidelined since Week 6. Sherman signed with Tampa Bay in late September for $1.35 million, and only played in three games for the Buccaneers, during which he had no interceptions and no passes defensed.

Once upon a time, Jones and Sherman were among the best players at their respective positions in the NFL. But that time is not now.

Bears Coach Matt Nagy saw his team victimized by the new officiating point of emphasis on taunting a couple of weeks ago, but recently he said something about it that struck at the heart of what the NFL wants to eliminate from its game.

"People watch, and people want to see a little bit of respect and a little bit of doing things the right way," Nagy said. "It doesn't mean you can't have fun, but there are young kids right now who are watching games, and what happens is you go to one of these (youth) sporting events and you might see some imitation going on that's taking it over the top. I'm a firm believer in respect and just kids growing and watching and we have a huge platform as leaders. Players and coaches. Let's understand what the rules are, let's do it the right way. Let's still have fun — these guys are still having fun and not taunting. You can still have a great time. But let's stay within the rules as we do it."

Claims about taunting being over-officiated, about the calls being unfair, or intrusive, or too impactful on the outcome of a game often are legitimate, but the NFL wants it eliminated. And its officials will continue to be instructed to flag it, and then the league either will stick up for them if they do or downgrade them if they don't, but in the end the NFL will get what it wants. It always does.

Celebrate with your teammates, or risk the consequences.