It didn't take long for Cameron Heyward to make an impact in Pittsburgh's recent loss to the Miami Dolphins. On Miami's third play from scrimmage - their second pass attempt - Heyward broke through for a sack of Ryan Tannehill. It was his fourth of the season, a year in which he did not start until after the first quarter pole, from a position that doesn't produce many sacks.
For the sake of comparison, Aaron Smith, widely regarded as the best Steelers' 3-4 defensive end, had eight sacks in 2004, arguably his best season as a pro.
It's a long cry from Heyward's domination in Week 14 from the start of his career. Heading into this season, he had 2.5 career sacks, and zero starts. While still improving as a run defender, the team's decision to get their ends up the field in a more attacking style (as opposed to more run-supporting roles of owning two gaps of the past) has clearly been a great one for Heyward. The word "bust" followed him around as closely as his first round draft status did.
Now, he's fairly seen as a foundation member of this defense into the future.
Jason Worilds had a similar impact on the Dolphins' shaky offensive line. He touched Tannehill down in the second quarter for an easy sack, and notched a real one late in the game with the Steelers ahead, giving them a chance to seal the win. It all fell apart from a team perspective after that, and the big playoff-saving win wasn't to be.
But neither Worilds nor Heyward can be blamed for how this season has turned out. If anything (and somewhat ironically), as fans cheer loudly for the former two high selected players (Worilds was a second-round pick in 2010, one year before the Steelers took Heyward 31st overall), they can provide fair but shortsighted criticism of 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones.
Worilds and Heyward both developed into what we've seen over the last several games - outstanding players who could be contributing members of this defense for many years to come. Yet, Jones is criticized extensively for many of the same short-comings as the Steelers' pair of breakout defenders.
To a lesser extent, rookie safety Shamarko Thomas and rookie linebacker Vince Williams also receive criticism usually pointed at veteran players. While The Standard is the Standard, that's a cliche meant to create an atmosphere where players don't use excuses, and push themselves as hard as possible.
No one in their right mind can fairly have expected Jones, Thomas or Williams to step in and dominate. Yet, fans expected that of Worilds and Heyward. Worilds insists he hasn't been given an opportunity to show what he can do consistently, and injuries have held him back in the past, but there's a more realistic middle ground. He could have used some more time, but he did show some ability in the time he had.
Where does that leave Jones, though? He got opportunities this season, but he does not appear to be physically or mentally ready. Is that worthy of slings and arrows?
No one seems to notice the hypocrisy of talking contract extensions for Worilds and Heyward, while bashing Jones. It gets even more misguided when fans bring up talks of the draft, and which first round player is the Steelers' salvation.
There's a reason why Jones was the first Steelers' rookie outside linebacker to start in over a decade. The problem is Steelers fans didn't see that reason as it was; a lack of depth and the need to inject the defense with young talent. Instead, they were lead to believe by media Jones is as groomed as any player to immediately step in and play at a high level because he stood off the line and rushed the passer in college.
It's hard to find an example of a more ridiculous statement in retrospect. It's highly likely we'll do it again come May, putting mythical expectations on a player who's currently required to attend study halls just as frequently as film sessions.
For as well as Worilds has played over the last few weeks, injuries and inconsistencies were still dragging his game down until he put it all together and remained healthy.
On the offensive side of the ball, accolades and praise are being given to running back Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers' second round draft pick. He's averaging 3.4 yards a carry, and has been starting since Week 4. He gets over 20 touches a game, a level of opportunity few running backs in the NFL enjoy. The fact he averages over 90 yards from scrimmage a game is more reflective of that increased level of opportunity more than flashes of Thurman Thomas.
Bell gets a pass, though, despite playing a position that's far easier to play as a rookie than outside linebacker in Dick LeBeau's defense. In full disclosure, this example is not apples to apples - Bell has shown some outstanding ability to go along with his rookie mistakes, and Jones hasn't quite shown that yet.
Judging by the progression and development of Worilds and Heyward, though, fans can and should learn the value of patience.
Or at the very least, don't think one rookie season from one player should indicate his career arch - certainly not when the suggested solution to that player's rookie season is to draft someone else.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Dolphins vs. Steelers Postgame News and Updates
- Antonio Brown Chasing History: 159 yards away from Thigpen
- Steelers top 1,000 rushing yards after 13 games
- Let's see how Steelers coach deals with one of the lowest moments of his tenure
- I didn't know Dolphins could swim in the snow
- Mike Adams, Cameron Heyward earn top PFF marks in loss to Dolphins
- Steelers borderline miraculous play sums up some of Steelers season