Defensive end Heyward impressive in first appearance

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LANDOVER, Md. -- Defensive line coach John Mitchell probably would rather have a tax audit than pronounce a rookie ready to play in the National Football League.

And that probably isn't going to change anytime soon, either, even if the rookie happens to be the team's No. 1 draft choice.

Mitchell acknowledged earlier this week that defensive end Cameron Heyward, the Steelers' No. 1 draft choice from Ohio State, was "right where a rookie should be -- trying to learn everything" after two weeks of training camp. But he also said he will have to "wait and see" how Heyward performs in a game.

Mitchell got a pretty good indication in a 16-7 preseason loss Friday night to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field -- and it might cause him to alter his assessment.

Even if Heyward's assessment of his performance wasn't very good.

"Terrible," Heyward said when asked how he played in his first NFL preseason game. "Individually, not good at all. I thought I screwed up a couple plays. I expect a lot out of myself."

Heyward might be overly hard on himself.

Like he has been at training camp, Heyward was one of the standouts for the opening preseason game, playing most of the first half on a line with Ziggy Hood and staying on the field until the end of the third quarter. And he looked very comfortable doing it.

Heyward finished with three unassisted tackles, one quarterback hurry and showed his athleticism by running down the line and stepping over blocks. What's more, he appeared to do a good job getting a push and disrupting plays in the backfield.

On one play in the second quarter, he pushed starting guard Kory Lichtensteiger back into the pocket and altered a pass by quarterback Rex Grossman. On another, he fought through a block and threw running back Roy Helu to the turf for no gain.

"I had chances to make a lot of plays, and I didn't take advantage of it," Heyward said.

If Heyward looked comfortable, it's not surprising. Ohio State defensive coaches often visit with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau -- a Buckeyes alumnus -- during the offseason to study his 3-4 defense. Many of the schemes the Buckeyes use are similar to what the Steelers employ.

Because of that, Heyward already has shown a good understanding of his assignments and how to play the two-gap style the Steelers prefer. That probably has put him ahead of Mitchell's schedule.

The Steelers planned to use him this year a lot like they employed No. 1 pick Ziggy Hood in 2009 -- giving him a handful of snaps each game in the regular season to get him acclimated to the defense and the speed of the game.

But, because of the way he has assimilated his role and looked comfortable on the field, Heyward possibly could see even more playing time at defensive end in the regular season.

"I'm not comfortable at all," Heyward said. "I still have a lot to learn. But I get to learn from guys like Ziggy Hood, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. They have been very supportive and show me what I need to learn."

Maybe Heyward, not Mitchell, is the critical one.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.


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