Two high draft picks, two disappointments. That is what some considered Jason Worilds and Cam Heyward as the 2013 season unfolded.
Worilds is the linebacker Mike Tomlin pushed his team to draft in the second round in 2010 rather than Penn State’s Sean Lee. While Lee became celebrated for his play in Dallas, Worilds remained a backup for the Steelers.
The Steelers drafted Heyward in the first round in 2011, and he entered his third season as a backup defensive end.
General manager Kevin Colbert’s drafts became more scrutinized when the Steelers lost their first four games this season, and those two picks were used as examples of what went wrong with the team.
How do you like them now? While the Steelers season went nowhere, Worilds and Heyward turned into rising stars, two young shining lights on an otherwise declining defense.
“I think we’ve had some emerging young players on defense, guys like Cam Heyward, who has worked his way into the lineup and established his presence,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, Jason Worilds has taken the misfortune of LaMarr Woodley’s injury and really kind of run with it and established himself as a guy that’s capable of being a consistent reason why we’re successful.”
Worilds had a sack taken away from him by the official NFL statisticians long after the Sunday game against Miami, but he still has had three in the past two games and leads the team with seven. He has been such a force at left outside linebacker that he pushed Woodley over to the right side when he returned to play Sunday after missing three games with a calf injury.
Heyward has four sacks from a position that traditionally does not lend itself to them in a 3-4 defense. He also is tied for the team lead with 25 quarterback pressures — with Worilds.
“You’ve seen continued growth of two young players that we drafted early that we thought a lot of,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said.
Both players found themselves behind veteran behemoths at their positions when they arrived. Worilds was behind Woodley and James Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Heyward was behind Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and 2009 first-rounder Ziggy Hood.
“But I’ve had the pleasure of just getting to learn from those guys,” Heyward said. “There is so much to learn. I’m just trying to live up to the hype. Those guys have set the bar pretty high, I’m just trying to carry it on.”
He did not start a game in his first two seasons, but spelled Keisel at times at right end in 2012. That occurred more often early this season. He made his first start for an injured Hood in the third game this season, then was promoted over him to start in the fifth game.
Heyward moved to right end with Keisel missing all but seven snaps over the past four games because of a foot injury.
“He was behind some very experienced, knowledgeable players,” LeBeau said. “You could see that Cam was going to be a very impactful player, and I think that’s what he’s been.”
Same for Worilds. He was robbed of valuable practice and training time with his team his second season because of the NFL lockout. Then, in his third season, he had wrist surgery early in 2012 that not only kept him off the field all spring but kept him from replacing Harrison when he missed the first three games because of knee surgery.
The Steelers released Harrison but then drafted outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round this year. That opened and quickly closed the job for Worilds, who started the first game, then was benched in favor of Jones.
Only when Jones did not perform to the coaches’ liking did they turn back to Worilds in the sixth game. He has started every game since, either on the right or left side, and he has performed like the best outside linebackers in the NFL.
“Jason Worilds is playing lights out,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “I think he finally gets it, I mean being in the NFL as a professional linebacker. It takes a long time to do it consistently.”
Heyward is under contract for 2014, and the Steelers will exercise their option to have him under contract for 2015 by the end of this season.
Worilds is another matter. He would become an unrestricted free agent in March if they do not re-sign him. The better he plays, the higher his price tag goes. They might have to choose between paying him and keeping Woodley.
Green next up for Taylor
Cincinnati’s A.J. Green ranks among the best wide receivers in the NFL — except when Taylor covers him.
Green made the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons in the league and is a favorite to make it 3 for 3. Yet in four games against Taylor, he has been held to 14 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns, including six receptions for 41 yards.
In the game last season at Heinz Field, Green caught 10 for 116 yards while Taylor was on the injured-reserve list.
“Ike is one of the best corners I go against each year,” Green said.
Taylor often covers the opponent’s best receiver, and some of them have caught quite a few passes against him. Cleveland’s Josh Gordon caught 14 for 237 yards and a touchdown and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson caught six for 179 yards and two touchdowns, although Taylor was not to blame on some of those. He also shut down Johnson for virtually three quarters in that Steelers victory against Detroit.
Added Green, “One thing about Ike, he might give up a big play, but you’re going to see him battle his way back and make a play that actually can change the game. It happens. If you’re a corner, you’re going to get beat sometimes.”
Taylor said he enjoys the challenge of playing against Green for several reasons.
“The thing you like about A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson, they don’t whine or complain, they just play football,” Taylor said. “Even if they’re not getting the ball, they’re still not complaining. They know they’re the man on their team, they know they’re good at what they do in the NFL.
“I think that’s what guys respect most about guys like that — they know they’re good but still humble enough to just play football and understand it’s a team game.”
Green ranks fourth in the AFC with 1,175 yards on 78 receptions and scored eight touchdowns.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.