The Pittsburgh Steelers had three defenders selected as first team All Pros; DL Cameron Heyward, LB/ER TJ Watt, and FS Minkah Fitzpatrick. All three honored were well deserving of their selection. Watt's outstanding season has to merit DPOY consideration. Fitzpatrick had an instant impact that solidified the secondary and was a turnover magnet.
This article will focus on the incredible contributions and achievements of Cameron Heyward. A player presently in the prime of his career, and accomplishing individual recognition once thought impossible for a 3-4 defensive lineman. Heyward has been selected as a first team All Pro, and he has earned the honor twice.
It was once nearly impossible for a 3-4 defensive end to make the Pro Bowl, much less be selected a All Pro. They tolled in obscurity, lacking in the flashy stats and splash plays that demanded attention from the voters. Only their opponents and teammates recognized their impact on the football field. Much of the media and casual fanbase had no clue. That all changed for the better when 3-4 ends started being categorized as interior linemen. That distinction created a opportunity for Heyward, but his superior performance is how Heyward kicked down the door.
Heyward has been able to achieve the recognition by being the picture perfect example of a unselfish defensive lineman, by displaying skills and qualities that bring to mind three special defensive linemen in NFL history. Steelers HOF Mean Joe Greene, underrated Steeler Aaron Smith, and the "Minister of Defense" Reggie White.
Mean Joe Greene was the consummate winner, the foundation of the Steelers dynasty, and the best player in Steelers history. By far the most important factor in turning the Steelers from league laughingstock to one of the NFL's flagship franchises. He was a dominating, disruptive force everytime he stepped on the field. He instilled fear in the opposition. Team success always came first with Mean Joe, as he displayed over the last half of his career. Suffering quietly from pain and weakness in one of his arms due to nerve damage, he continued to man his position as only he could. He wasn't as dominant as he was early in his career, but the Steelers couldn't have won their third and fourth titles without Greene as the foundation of their defense. Heyward displays many of those same leadership qualities. The team always comes first.
Aaron Smith never got the chance to be viewed as a interior lineman, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Smith was asked to play a different game as a old school 3-4 DE, and he did it to perfection. Nothing spectacular to impress the fans, mind you. Mainly grunt work, like setting the edge against the run or occupying multiple blockers to free up the edge rushers. This takes personal sacrifice and a team first mentality. Sound familiar? Smith had this characteristic in spades. He wasn't concerned with personal recognition, only helping the Steelers win football games. Heyward is cut from the same cloth.
Finally, Heyward reminded me this season of Hall of Famer Reggie White. Reggie was blessed with exceptional athleticism, but his superior power and explosion was what made him truly special toward the latter part of his career. In a league full of gigantic men, Reggie had the superhuman strength necessary to manhandle his opponents. He mastered the hip toss, basically uppercutting the offensive lineman under the arm and simultaneously knocking him off balance before tossing him aside on his way to the QB. This maneuver took impeccable technique and otherworldly strength.
The most successful pass rushing linemen in today's NFL utilize their length and quickness, more than their brute strength. Heyward is more the old school throwback, in the mold of White and other power players from days gone by. Heyward came up just short of reaching double digit sacks this season, but he destroyed blocking schemes with regularity and collapsed the pocket consistently. The chaos he caused throughout the season directly lead to the impressive sack totals put up by TJ Watt and Bud Dupree. His match up with fellow first team All Pro Quenton Nelson of the Indianapolis Colts was epic. It was a extremely volatile confrontation, strength against strength, and Heyward gave a dominant performance. One of the most impressive defensive performances I witnessed this season.
Heyward is at the pinnacle of his profession, and seemingly continues to improve his game each year. He continues to add weapons to his arsenal and the results speak for themselves. He has proven to be the consummate professional, on and off the field.
Congratulations to Cameron Heyward. All the recognition is well deserved.