Cameron Heyward and the rest of the 2011 rookie class had the misfortune of being caught in the middle of the NFL labor dispute a year ago. The lack of a collective bargaining agreement meant that Heyward and other rookies could not benefit from participation in offseason training activities or a full-length training camp.
A young player learning a complicated defense, Heyward, a 6-foot-5, 288-pound defensive end from Ohio State, never did feel completely comfortable playing in Dick LeBeau's defense last season.
"It takes time," said Heyward, who was the 31st overall selection in the 2011 draft. "It's different for everyone, but this defense is a little bit complicated and you just have to study."
In his second training camp, Heyward has a better comfort level, and he is hoping that will translate into a more productive season. He played in a reserve role a year ago and recorded nine tackles and a sack in the regular season. When starting right end Brett Keisel went down with an injury in a playoff game at Denver, Heyward played more and had three tackles in a 29-23 overtime loss.
"Everything was a whirlwind last year," he said. "I wouldn't change it. I just feel more comfortable with the playbook this year. Having a true offseason with OTAs, I know why I am doing something as opposed to knowing I have to do something. Overall, I feel healthier and stronger than last year."
There was some speculation before training camp began that Heyward would push Ziggy Hood for the starting job at left defensive end, but Heyward has worked almost exclusively behind Keisel at right end through the first three weeks of training camp.
"I wasn't even thinking in that regard," Heyward said. "I can't look at it as a numbers game or where I am on the depth chart. My main thing is I have to worry about doing my technique right. Hopefully, the coaches have confidence in me to go out there."
Keisel didn't exactly predict another trip to the Super Bowl for the Steelers Wednesday, but he has good reason to believe it might happen.
You see, every time Keisel welcomes a new child the Steelers win the AFC championship.
It happened in 2008 when the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII and it happened again in 2010 when the Steelers made it to Super Bowl XLV. The Keisels celebrated the arrival of their third child last week, a boy named William.
"It's amazing," Keisel said. "Every time we've had a kid we've gone to the Super Bowl, so I want that trend to continue."
Keisel said the pressure is on William.
"I had my son, we won Super Bowl XLIII," he said. "I had my daughter and we lost the Super Bowl. I had another son and I expect us to win it."
Keisel missed the first preseason game against the Eagles to be with his wife for the birth. He expects to play in the second preseason game Sunday night against the Colts.
Second-year receiver Emmanuel Sanders is the latest player to hint that Mike Wallace could be reporting to the team soon. Wallace has been absent from training camp because he is unhappy with his contract situation.
"I know I'm ecstatic about him saying he's going to come back," Sanders said. "For the longest [time], we didn't know when he was going to come back. It's starting to look really good. There is light at the end of the tunnel with training camp and Mike coming back. The puzzle is starting to come together."
When asked why he feels so confident that Wallace will report and sign his $2.7 million tender, Sanders said: "That's what I'm hearing. He's staying down at Ike Taylor's house [in Orlando while training]. He and Ike talk almost every day. We don't know 100 percent if he's going to be back, but there's hope. There's a real buzz around the team that he's going to be coming back pretty soon. "
The Steelers are encouraging fans to arrive early Sunday for a game against the Colts. All fans will be subject to metal detection as they enter the field, a new requirement for NFL games this season. All stadium gates will open at 6 p.m. for the 8 p.m. kickoff.
In addition to James Harrison's knee surgery, tight end David Johnson had surgery to repair his torn ACL. ... Linebacker Sean Spence sustained a minor ankle injury in practice Wednesday that will keep him out for a few days, according to coach Mike Tomlin.