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5 for Friday: Heyward powering through his 30s

Cameron Heyward said this week that he'd like to play at least three more seasons.

That would take the Steelers' defensive captain through his age 35, 36 and 37 seasons and put him in some rarified air in terms of longevity in the NFL.

But there is some precedent for defensive linemen whose games are built more on power than they are speed and finesse to do so. And that's exactly what Heyward is thinking about.

"My game is different from everybody else in this league," Heyward said. "I like to think I can play the run and the pass. And that's why I'm different. Last year Mike (Tomlin) brought to my attention, the thing that's really cool is you watch powerlifters, and my game is built on power and technique. And (powerlifters) go into their 40s. And so, you know, that's what kind of research I'm doing behind the scenes."

Heyward isn't wrong.

Because he is a power-based player who wins with excellent technique, his game can last longer than a player who relies on his speed and agility to win at the line of scrimmage. And there is some precedent for those kind of players to be able to continue to play well into their late 30s.

Look no further than Atlanta's Calais Campbell for a recent example.

Like Heyward, Campbell has had some of his best seasons in his 30s. And he's still going strong, even though he'll turn 38 in September.

Last season, Campbell had 56 tackles and 6.5 sacks for the Falcons. The year before in Baltimore, Campbell recorded 36 tackles and 5.5 sacks at age 36.

And like Heyward, his game is built around power and leverage rather than speed.

Campbell also is hardly the only example.

Another longtime defensive tackle, Steve McMichael, whose game also closely resembles that of Heyward's had 89 tackles and 10.5 sacks for the Bears at age 35 in 1992. The following season, he had 78 tackles and 6.0 sacks before finishing his career in Green Bay in 1994 with 28 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

For his career, McMichael had 847 tackles and 95 sacks in 15 NFL seasons.

Former Rams star Merlin Olsen had 91 sacks in his 15 NFL seasons, including 7.5 in 1975 at age 35.

Reggie White, perhaps the greatest pass rushing defensive tackle of all-time, had 41 sacks after he turned 35, including 11 at 36 and 16 at 37 before retiring for a season.

White didn't play football at 38, but was talked out of retirement for a season in Carolina, when he had 16 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 2000 for the Panthers and calling it a career for good.

And Chris Doleman had 54 tackles and 11 sacks at 35 for the 49ers, following that up at 36 with 46 tackles and 12 sacks, and 45 tackles and 15 sacks in 1998 for San Francisco.

In 1999, he returned to Minnesota, where his career began, and had 53 tackles and 8 sacks in his final NFL season at 38 years old.

Now, all four of the aforementioned retired players are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Campbell and Heyward also will both have a good shot of making it there someday, as well.

And when your game is built on power, you can age like a fine wine.

Yes, Heyward had a down season in 2023 thanks to a groin injury that required multiple surgeries to repair. But a groin injury isn't an ACL or other type of issue. Now that the injury has been repaired, Heyward can resume his spot as one of the league's best interior defensive linemen.

Nobody should bet against him doing that.

In his eight seasons before turning 30, Heyward had 314 tackles and 45 sacks in 118 games. Since turning 30 in 2019, Heyward has 198 tackles and 333 tackles and 35.5 sacks in 76 games. Two of his three double-digit sack seasons have come since he turned 30.

His game has aged well.

• Heyward said this week that when he's healthy, he feels he's still a top defensive tackle in the league.

"I think when I'm at the top of my game, I'm still a top-5 player at my position," Heyward said.

He's not alone in that feeling.

Pro Football Focus released its lists of the top 32 players in the NFL at every position over the past two weeks and Heyward ranked fifth among its defensive tackle rankings behind Kansas City's Chris Jones, Dexter Lawrence of the Giants, Quinnen Williams of the Jets and Carolina's Derrick Brown.

He was hardly the only Steelers player on the list.

Outside linebacker T.J. Watt was ranked fourth among edge rushers behind only Cleveland's Myles Garrett, Micah Parsons of Dallas and Nick Bosa of the 49ers, while teammate Alex Highsmith was 19th.

Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, one of the Steelers' big free agent acquisitions this season, ranked seventh at his position, while cornerback Joey Porter Jr. was 32nd.

Minkah Fitzpatrick ranked fourth among safeties.

On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Russell Wilson was ranked 22nd, just ahead of Cleveland's Deshaun Watson.

Running backs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren both also made the rankings at their respective position, coming in at 19th and 22nd, while wide receiver George Pickens ranked 30th.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth was ranked 15th, while guards Isaac Seumalo (14th) and James Daniels (20th) both also made the list at their position.

• Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Alan Faneca is among the players with Steelers ties who are among the finalists for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, the National Football Foundation revealed this week.

Faneca, a 1997 consensus All-America player at LSU, was a first-round draft pick of the Steelers in 1998. He's joined on the list of finalists by former Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a quarterback at Indiana, offensive tackle Flozell Adams, a Michigan State product, and quarterback Michael Vick, a star at Virginia Tech.

Also among this year's finalists is former Pitt running back Craig Heyward, the father of current Steelers Cameron and Connor Heyward.

Former Steelers offensive lineman Ted Petersen also is a Divisional finalist for his playing days at Eastern Illinois.

• There seems to be a train of thought in some circles that Fitzpatrick didn't have a good season in 2023 because he didn't have any interceptions a year after leading the NFL with six interceptions.

But that's not true.

Though Fitzpatrick didn't have an interception, he was very active in the 10 games in which he played, recording 64 tackles, an average of 6.4 per game.

That was the exact same number of tackles he averaged per game in 2022 when he had 94 in 15 games.

But the interceptions weren't there.

The reason for that was because Fitzpatrick was used all over the defense to help put out fires.

Per Pro Football Focus, Fitzpatrick played 549 defensive snaps in 2023. Of those, 227 came at deep safety, 149 in the box, 134 in the slot and 22 at outside cornerback.

Outside of his free safety alignment, all of his other percentages of snaps were the most he's played at any of those other spots since he became a member of the Steelers in 2019.

A big reason for that was because of injuries elsewhere on the defense.

With the reacquisition of Cam Sutton this week, the Steelers look to have completely restocked their secondary, which should allow Fitzpatrick to settle in more at his natural free safety spot. And that should lead to Fitzpatrick getting his hands on more passes again.

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

He's the best deep center fielder in the league. He can do all of those other things, but it's probably not the best overall use of his talent.

This is, after all, a guy who had 17 interceptions and had a hand in 24 turnovers in his first four seasons with the Steelers.

"Just let me play ball, that's it," Fitzpatrick said this week. "Minkah ball."

The Steelers finished tied for fourth in the NFL last season with 27 forced turnovers. And that was without Fitzpatrick, their best turnover guy, being involved in any. If he can get back to playing "Minkah ball," that would be a welcome addition.

• In four of the past five seasons, the Steelers have had a negative point differential, meaning they have been outscored by their opponents in each of those seasons.

Despite that, the Steelers are 38-30-1 in those four seasons in which they've been outscored by opponents.

In that same five-year period, only 12 other teams have had seasons where they've had a negative point differential and finished with a .500 or better record, meaning the Steelers have had 25 percent of all such seasons in that span.

And yet there are people who believe Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin isn't a good coach.