Heyward back to anchor Steelers' deep defensive line

LATROBE, Pa. (AP) Cam Heyward vividly remembers a December road game last season at Cincinnati, where the Pittsburgh Steelers were quickly running out of healthy bodies along the defensive line.

Heyward was already sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle for a game the Steelers won by four points. He saw teammates along the line start to fall because of injury.

He doesn't think the Steelers will have that problem this season.

Heyward is back and ready to anchor a young unit that gained depth and experience in his absence.

''We can go into the game with three nose tackles or six or seven ends because guys can play multiple positions,'' Heyward said. ''It just gives us depth and if someone gets injured, we don't feel like we're cramming around.

''I remember the Cincinnati game, I was talking to the outside linebackers like ''can y'all play defensive end,'' but I don't think we'll have to deal with that this year.''

Since entering the NFL as the Steelers' first-round draft pick in 2011, Heyward played 85 consecutive regular-season games - third-longest active streak among NFL defensive ends at the time. But that string ended when a hamstring injury forced Heyward to miss two games. His season concluded soon after when Heyward tore a pectoral muscle against Dallas in November.

The 28-year-old Heyward, who enters his seventh season, wants to put a forgettable 2016 in the past.

''I feel like my season got cut short,'' Heyward said. ''I don't really count last season because I was injured too much, so I'm back to my sixth year.''

An improved Stephon Tuitt joins Heyward to give the Steelers a formidable tandem along the defensive line.

Tuitt, the Steelers' second-round pick in 2014, stepped up significantly to lead the line in Heyward's absence. Tuitt set the tone the week after Heyward's season-ending injury when he tied a single-game career high with two sacks and was chosen AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

''When Cam Heyward went down, I really grew a lot,'' Tuitt said. ''You don't ever want to be in a situation like that, but it helped me grow and I'm going to be a better veteran player because of that, because I have so much confidence this year.''

The Steelers intended to give Heyward and Tuitt a much-needed breather along the defensive line when they made Javon Hargrave their third-round draft pick in 2016.

The plan worked as Hargrave gained valuable experience as a rookie, playing in 15 games and making 13 starts at defensive tackle. He also played in the Steelers' three playoff games and got his first career postseason sack on Tom Brady in the AFC championship game during a lopsided loss against New England.

The Steelers added a veteran presence in March when they gave a two-year contract to Tyson Alualu, a longtime defensive lineman in Jacksonville, and 2010 first-round draft pick.

''He has a great motor,'' Heyward said. ''You saw that in Jacksonville and he brought it here. He was drafted in the first round for a reason and I'm glad he came here.''

A pair of sixth-round picks, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton, also continue to develop. McCullers, drafted in 2014, and Walton, a 2016 pick, have appeared in 53 games, making a combined five starts in three seasons.

Heyward recognizes the progress made last season by his younger teammates along the line while he was sidelined. Now, Heyward's back in the fold, making expectations greater along the line with added depth and experience.

''You see guys get a lot of reps and I thought they grew throughout the year,'' Heyward said. ''I just want them to take the next step this year.''

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