Steelers Heyward ready to work on defensive line

PITTSBURGH (AP) Pittsburgh defensive end Cameron Heyward isn't opposed to a rotation along the line. He's also OK with playing as many snaps as necessary.

The Steelers made it a goal in the offseason to give Heyward and Stephon Tuitt support at end.

''Whatever cards we're dealt, we're going to be ready,'' Heyward said. ''We would love to have depth, but we're not going to just give reps to anybody. We have to be well-conditioned and we have to be ready for that, but if we have guys that are able to step up, we welcome it.''

The Steelers realize they have one of the most formidable tandems at defensive end in Heyward and Tuitt. That's why Keith Butler, in his first season as defensive coordinator, opted to find ways to create additional pressure on the quarterback with his two DEs.

''We have two guys that are probably as good as anybody in the league in that position,'' Butler said. ''We played them a lot last year. We would like to be able to rest them a little bit, so they can be fresh and maybe our four-man rush will improve.''

The pass rush improved considerably in 2015 as Pittsburgh finished third in the league with 48 sacks. That was an increase from 2014, when the Steelers totaled 33 sacks for a 26th-place league ranking. Heyward and Tuitt did their part, combining for 13 1-2 sacks in 2015, while the rest of the pressure came from the secondary and linebackers.

Heyward feels a rotation along the defensive line could increase those numbers.

''You look around the league and the great (defensive) lines have a good rotation, and they're fresh by the playoff run,'' Heyward said. ''If we can have that and have a continuity where it continues to grow, I'd be happy with that too.''

Heyward played 88 percent of the team's snaps on defense, while Tuitt followed at 78 percent. The next closest along the defensive line was former nose tackle Steve McLendon at 34 percent, and Cam Thomas with 16 percent of the snaps.

Heyward admitted inexperience along the defensive line, but pointed out growth from players such as L.T. Walton, the Steelers' 2015 sixth-round pick, and this season's third-round pick Javon Hargrave. He also expects contributions from seven-year veteran Ricardo Mathews.

''We're just about including them and trying to make them grow in our defense,'' Heyward said.

A rotation along the defensive line will go a long way toward preserving the Steelers' two best up-front pass rushers. Heyward will be ready regardless.

''I can stay in,'' Heyward said. ''We've been doing it. My goal is to be ready for the game and to be ready for the fourth quarter, because that's when games are decided.

''If we can get a rotation, that's great, but if we only have so many guys, and those are the cards we're dealt, then I'm going to play. I'm not going to moan or cry about it. It just means we have to make more plays.''

NOTES: Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown will play for the first time in the preseason Friday at New Orleans. . Cornerback Artie Burns, the Steelers' first-round pick, practiced Wednesday and could make his preseason debut Friday after missing the first two games because of injury. . LB Bud Dupree, QB Bruce Gradkowski, OT Jerald Hawkins, FB Roosevelt Nix, QB Dustin Vaughan and OL Cody Wallace will likely miss Friday's game. . Free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis, the Steelers' third-round pick in 2009, visited his former team on Wednesday.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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