The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a fortunate organization in a lot of ways. Their dominant defenses of the early and mid-2000's were shining examples of that good fortune. Great players like James Harrison, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and a younger Brett Keisel. The list could literally go on and on.
Of those great defenses, there is a common factor in the equation. A dominating defensive line. Whether you are talking about Kimo von Oelhoffen or even Chris Hoke. No matter who was plugged into the lineup, they succeeded. None embodied what that unit meant more than Aaron Smith.
When Smith's time with the team had come to it's conclusion, he passed the torch to Brett Keisel. Keisel carried that torch for 13 years, but as his own triceps injury, eerily similar to how Smith's career ended, claimed his 2014 season and most likely his career, Keisel now hands the torch to the next in the long line of dominating defensive lineman: Cameron Heyward.
Heyward seems to be ready to take the next step in his progression and become not only the vocal leader of the defensive line, but possibly the entire defense. Heyward told Scott Brown of ESPN.com just how much Keisel means to him, as well as the state of the Steelers' defense moving into 2015.
"He's always been a big teacher for me," Heyward said of Keisel. "He's taught me how to lead, how to get better. I don't want to let that guy down."
Where Heyward sees the defense needing to improve as the offseason begins is simple. The defensive front needs to be able to get after the passer.
"We have to have more guys getting to the quarterback, myself included," Heyward said after a season in which the Steelers registered just 34 sacks in 17 games. "Anytime it's a pass I've got to get more pressure. I put more pressure on myself than any coach could."
It is the picture Heyward paints in the quote above which gives fans a glimpse of why Mike Tomlin listed Heyward as one of the young leaders for this team moving forward.
"Guys like Antonio Brown, guys like Maurkice Pouncey, guys like Cam Heyward are great workers," Tomlin said. "Not only are they great players, they're great workers. I think that they provide a pretty good compass in leadership for others to follow in regards to bringing the mentality that's geared towards getting better on a daily basis and working."
As Heyward prepares for the future with a new leadership role on his shoulders, he recognizes who have gone before him and what they mean to him and the team.
"They had already won Super Bowls before I got here but just the way they went about their business, always full-time pros on and off the field, they inspired me to be better," Heyward said. "I just thank them for all that they've done."
Let the torch officially be passed to the next generation of Steelers defenders, and the torch bearer is Cameron Heyward.