On the Steelers: Heyward becomes a No. 1 hit
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When he was 8 years old, Cameron Heyward moved with his family from Monroeville to the Atlanta suburbs because his father -- the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward -- was a running back for the Falcons. Heyward's mother, Charlotte, and brothers, Corey and Connor, still live there.
Now Heyward has the unique distinction of playing for one hometown team and trying to stop the other when the Steelers (1-1) play their third preseason game tonight against the Atlanta Falcons (0-2) at Heinz Field.
Unlike most of the rookies, Heyward, the team's No. 1 draft choice, doesn't have to worry about impressing his coaches or teammates. He has done that almost from the time he arrived for training camp at Saint Vincent College, even though Heyward has been overly critical of his performance in the first two preseason games.
"He's going to be a good player, a really good player," said defensive end Brett Keisel, who plays ahead of Heyward on the right side of the three-man line. "The thing that impresses me the most is his work ethic. You always want to see guys with a first-round grade show why coaches and scouts gave him that grade.
"And he's certainly deserving of it."
Keisel said that is why Heyward (6 feet 5, 295) got into several scuffles at training camp with offensive linemen -- because veteran players want to test a rookie, especially the 31st overall pick in the draft. Heyward never backed down.
"I basically told him, don't let anyone do that to you," Keisel said.
"Stand up for yourself. You don't have to get in a big brawl, but make sure the play is clean and, if it's not clean, don't be cool about it. It's OK to get upset. You don't need it to be a big distraction, but hold your own ground."
Despite what he says, Heyward is better than anyone expected at this stage. He is ahead of where Ziggy Hood was as a rookie No. 1 in 2009, in part because Ohio State used some of the same defensive schemes employed by alum Dick LeBeau. And he likely will play more than the cursory snaps Hood received as a rookie.
Defensive line coach John Mitchell, a discerning critic in his own right, said it is easy to see Heyward's natural strength, agility and athleticism. But what might not be easy to see is how Heyward is almost never knocked off his feet -- a rarity for a rookie.
"We're just now getting into the intricacies of the playbook, and it's getting stacked on, but would I say he can come in and help us this year? I would," Keisel said. "I think he has the ability to be able to come in and give us some blows and get some good playing time."
Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich will get most of the snaps against the Falcons, with Roethlisberger scheduled to play the entire first half and Leftwich coming on in the third quarter.
It is unlikely veteran Charlie Batch will play much, if at all, because the Steelers want to use Dennis Dixon -- possibly to showcase their fourth-year quarterback in an attempt to trade him before the final cutdown.
All three backup quarterbacks will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the year, and Leftwich appears content to remain with the team as the top backup to Roethlisberger.
But Dixon wants to go to a team where he has a chance to play -- or, at the very least, be a No. 2 quarterback. So it is unlikely he will re-sign with the Steelers after the 2011 season.
Unless there is an injury before the final cut, expect Batch, not Dixon, to be the team's No. 3 quarterback this season.
Coach Mike Tomlin referred to the game against the Falcons as "a big game for a lot of people." But, the reality is that most of the 53-man roster and nearly all the contested positions already are set, barring injuries.
Offensively, Tony Hills will start at right guard for the second game in a row, and, unless he does something to disprove what the coaches think, he will be the starting right guard Sept. 11 in Baltimore.
The one draft choice who probably won't make the team is offensive guard Keith Williams, their No. 6 pick from Nebraska. His spot on the 53-man roster was jeopardized when the team re-signed veteran offensive lineman Trai Essex.
The one spot that remains unsettled is the No. 3 tight end. David Johnson will be the top backup to Heath Miller and will be paired on the line in a lot of two-tight end sets -- unless a veteran tight end becomes available during the final roster cutdowns.
If not, 10-year veteran John Gilmore, first-year free-agent Jamie McCoy and rookie Weslye Saunders will battle for the third spot.
Defensively, roster composition could determine if a ninth linebacker such as free-agent Mortty Ivy or a seventh cornerback such as Crezdon Butler makes the team.
First Published August 27, 2011 12:00 am