PITTSBURGH — Cam Heyward’s idea of a good time is grabbing his phone and returning to his childhood.
“Looney Tunes.” “Doug.” Pretty much any cartoon that ran on Nickelodeon in the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end is likely to pop in his ear buds and escape.
“I just like stuff that’s carefree,” Heyward said.
Consider it a respite from all the growing up he’s done in his three seasons with the Steelers.
The learning curve that looked so steep as a rookie in 2011 has leveled off for the 24-year-old, who suddenly finds himself as the linchpin on a line in transition.
Veteran Brett Keisel is out indefinitely with plantar fasciitis in his left foot and with the 35-year-old in the final year of a contract, the Steelers appear in no hurry to renew. Nose tackle Steve McLendon remains sidelined with an ankle injury. Former first-round pick Ziggy Hood has struggled playing with any sort of consistency.
Only Heyward has remained healthy and effective all season, the raw tools he brought to the NFL when the Steelers (5-7) took him in the 31st overall pick of the 2011 draft having been chiseled into something decidedly more effective.
Heyward already has a career-high three sacks heading into Sunday’s game against Miami (6-6), is second on the team with 23 quarterback pressures and even picked up his first career fumble recovery — with an 8-yard return on top of it — in a victory over Cleveland two weeks ago.
“He’s becoming a veteran player and his playing time is starting to reflect that, his playing level is starting to reflect that,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said.
“I think the future is definitely up for Cam, I’m glad that we got him.”
The Steelers have certainly needed Heyward to take a step forward. The powerfully built 6-foot-3, 288-pound Heyward never lacked the talent or the work ethic. What he needed, LeBeau insists, was a chance to work.
That’s not a particularly easy commodity to come by for a young player in LeBeau’s complex 3-4 defense. Pittsburgh brought Heyward along slowly in this first two seasons, using him in rotation with Hood but rarely letting Heyward play for long stretches.
Sensing it was time to make some changes to the way he prepares, Heyward remained in Pittsburgh last offseason, often picking up troubled nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu to the team practice facility, where the two big men spent hours working out and watching tape.
“I’ve just been trying to grow as a player as much as possible,” Heyward said. “That’s been my mantra: Work hard to try to get better every day. There are a lot of guys who have helped me along the way, and I just want to be a quality starter in this league.”
He’s well on his way. The son of former NFL running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward plays with the same kind of fury in which his father would power through a linebacker 20 years ago.
Where his father was a compact 260-pound ball of kinetic energy, Heyward is taller and leaner but no less intense. He already has six pass deflections this year, including one that led to Ryan Clark’s interception in Pittsburgh’s first victory of the season in New York two months ago. Heyward credits his improved instincts to the confidence that comes from knowing what you’re doing when you step on the field.
“Experience has been a big key for me,” he said. “When I get more time out there, more reps and more opportunities, I can play with my hair on fire.”
Heyward’s scalp will need to be blazing on Sunday if the Steelers want to keep their chances of making a run at a playoff berth alive. There should be plenty of chances against Miami and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has absorbed a league-high 45 sacks.
It’s a number that could be significantly higher if not for Tannehill’s ability to escape pressure and extend plays. It’s something Heyward has faced plenty of times while trying to chase down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in practice.
“He’s not as tough as Ben, but he’s also able to stay in the pocket and has an arm to help those receivers out,” Heyward said. “They have a lot of talent on offense that works really well together, so they’re a scary combination.”
At the moment, so is Heyward.
NOTES: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell practiced on Thursday and expects to play on Sunday. Bell left last week’s loss to Baltimore with a concussion following a scary collision at the goal line. Though Bell said he has passed an ImPACT test administered by the team, he needs to be evaluated again before receiving the go-ahead to play. ... LB LaMarr Woodley (left calf strain) practiced Thursday and could return after missing the last three games.