By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward didn't start until his third NFL season, but the fifth-year player has developed quickly since then and is on the verge of reaching the Pro Bowl.
Fellow end Stephon Tuitt worked his way into a starting role toward the end of his rookie season last fall, so his development has been accelerated. The Steelers expect even more from him this season, and Tuitt concurs.
"Coach Mitch (DL coach John Mitchell) preaches that practice is the time to get better, and I really believe that,'' Tuitt said. "But when you get into the games, going against other players, you only have seconds to react. Sometimes not that much. And after a couple games, it started hitting me after I got a couple chances to start and finish the season that way.''
Tuitt started the Steelers' final four regular-season games and playoff matchup with Baltimore, and his performance was solid. But the game that stood out was a late home contest with Kansas City. The Steelers had not yet clinched a playoff birth, and their late-game lead was precarious. Tuitt made sure that neither was in doubt with a game-turning play.
Tuitt already had one sack against quarterback Alex Smith and put the heat on during a late series as well. Smith dumped off to Jamaal Charles, and the speedy running back looked toward the open field. He never got there, as Tuitt ran him down and dislodged the football. Linebacker Vince Williams recovered to thwart the Chiefs' comeback attempt, and the Steelers scored on the ensuing possession to seal the victory.
"I think that game was a start-off point for me,'' Tuitt said. "It was a point where I felt like I belonged and knew I could do this. I'm ready to take this game to another level and become one of the Pittsburgh Steelers' greatest.''
That's quite a statement, but who could doubt the 6-foot-5, 303-pound Notre Dame product? It didn't take long for him to get into a regular rotation on the defensive line, and Tuitt eventually beat out veteran Cam Thomas for a starting spot. Now, it's his position to lose.
"I expect a lot from him, because he's been in certain situations that most rookies don't get to be in,'' Heyward said. "He started a playoff game for us. He helped us accomplish winning the AFC North. He's been in dog fights. I was behind guys like Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. They were going through the dog fights. If they weren't playing, then I would get an opportunity.''
That's why the Steelers believe that Tuitt has a high ceiling. It's also important to note that Tuitt just turned 22 in late May, and he's three months younger than current Steelers No. 1 pick Bud Dupree. So, his future is bright.
"People don't realize that guy was a senior in college last year,'' Mitchell said. "You expect the mistakes he made. Those mistakes you make your senior year in college. He's playing in the NFL against guys who have been in the league five, 10 and 15 years, and he did a good job.
"It took him a little while longer to pick up our scheme and understand what we're going to do, but you have to realize, he was a young man who just turned 20 years old and he would have been a senior last year at Notre Dame.''
Last season was a baptism by fire for Tuitt, who played 456 snaps, including 284 of a possible 319 defensive snaps over the final five games as a starter (including the playoff game). That's nearly as many snaps as Heyward played during his opening two NFL seasons.
"They throw a lot at you, right from the beginning,'' Tuitt, the 2014 second-round pick, said. "When I first came here, I had really high expectations. I wanted to get people to believe in me, but I definitely believed in myself and my abilities. I just took the time to slow the game down, to study the playbook and get it down as much as possible.''
That regimen paid off for Tuitt and the Steelers, and it should benefit the club's defense for a long time in the future.