Five things we learned during Steelers training camp: Connor Heyward among Pittsburgh's biggest standouts – CBS Sports
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Fans got a taste of what fans and media who attended Steelers training camp observed during Pittsburgh’s first two preseason games. The good: George Pickens looking like the next Steelers young star receiver and fellow rookie Kenny Pickett’s rocket-paced progress. The bad: underperformance on the offensive line, inside and outside linebacker corps.
While some things are coming to light, there are still a few things that were learned during camp that have either not completely surfaced or may have been missed by fans who either haven’t watched the preseason or may have gone to the refrigerator at the wrong moment. Either way, there are several notable things from this summer’s camp that are likely previews of what’s to come when Pittsburgh’s regular season begins in Cincinnati on Sept. 11.
Here’s a look at the five things we learned during training camp, starting with a late-round rookie who made his mark during his first summer at Saint Vincent College.
The Steelers made an interesting pick with the 208th overall pick in this year’s draft. With the pick, they selected former Michigan State tight end Connor Heyward, the younger brother of All-Pro defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. While they didn’t necessarily have a need at that position, the younger Heyward’s versatility, unique skill set and nonstop motor made him a player the Steelers wanted to add to Matt Canada’s offense.
That skill set was put to the test during training camp. Heyward rose to the challenge, catching passes and displaying rare quickness for a player of his size (6-foot, 230 pounds). Heyward parlayed his work during camp into a big play during Pittsburgh’s first preseason game. He added to the Steelers’ point tally with a two-point catch on a throw from Pickett during Pittsburgh’s 32-25 win over Seattle.
Steelers TE/FB Connor Heyward secures the two-point conversion:https://t.co/SQDyqJO8P7 pic.twitter.com/CB4L8PgbRx
“I feel like everything’s been going pretty smooth so far,” Heyward told CBS Sports during the final days of camp. “Obviously, being in the NFL, everybody is good, so you have to be able to get better, forget about last week and continue to improve.
“We’re excited about the future. We have a good group, and all the older guys are teaching me a lot.”
Heyward’s main calling card at Michigan State was his ability to excel at multiple positions. He carried the ball 211 times, caught 95 passes (including the game-winning score in the Spartans’ Peach Bowl win over Pitt last December) and returned 33 kickoffs during his time in East Lansing. Heyward is hoping to make a similar impact in Pittsburgh, where he is part of a highly touted rookie class that also includes Pickett, Pickens, receiver Calvin Austin III, defensive end DeMarvin Leal and linebacker Mark Robinson.
“Whatever my role is, I want to do it to the best of my ability,” Heyward said.” I know we have a really good rookie class, but we’ve got to earn our stripes.
“Whenever we get in, we’ve got to make our plays and continue to get the coach’s trust and the trust of the guys next to us. If you trust the guy next to you, it just makes everything better.”
Heyward is also hoping to complement the skill sets of Pittsburgh’s other tight ends, a group that is led by Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, who like Heyward played college football in the Big Ten conference.
“We all have many different skill sets, but we have a lot of similarities as well,” Heyward said. “Gentry is a bigger guy who can block those bigger guys. Pat can do it all, he’s a complete tight end. Me, I think I’m a change of speed and tempo, plus I can play fullback, running back. The more flexibility, the better. I think this year, we’ll be able to play with two or three tight ends (at a time) if needed.”
The only thing that traveled further than Harvin’s punts at Latrobe were the golf balls he and several of his teammates hit during some downtime while playing at Arnold Palmer’s country club located just down the road from Saint Vincent. Speaking of golf, Harvin said that his newfound hobby helped prepare him for his job as the Steelers punter heading into his second NFL season.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that’s kind of helped me with punting was just trying to find that same golf swing, and the same thing with trying to find the same swing with punting,” Harvin told CBS Sports following Pittsburgh’s final camp practice. “You work the muscle memory so much with practice that by the time you get into a game or on a course, it’s natural to you.
“It goes hand in hand. I noticed a couple of weeks ago on film that instead of my leg going straight up, it was going a little bit inside. It’s small things like that, and you’ve got to try to critique yourself on a very small and minute level.”
Along with golf, the 2020 Ray Guy Award winner implemented other things outside of football into his offseason training program. It’s clear, based on how he looked this summer, that the things Harvin implemented into his regiment have already started to pay off.
“This offseason, I just told myself that I need to find a consistency on and off the field,” Harvin said. “Got my mind right, my mental is good, got in shape, feeling good, the leg has been swinging pretty good. Just trying to find a consistent swing every single time and let that muscle memory work for me.”
The NFL’s best receiving corps currently resides in Cincinnati, where quarterback Joe Burrow has the luxury of throwing to wideouts Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. But the Steelers’ receiving corps may be deeper than the one that just helped Cincinnati capture an AFC title.
It starts with Diontae Johnson, who reestablished himself as the Steelers’ No. 1 wideout after signing a long-term contract. The 26-year-old should be entering his prime years after making his first Pro Bowl last season. Johnson is flanked by third-year wideout Chase Claypool, who also appears to be primed for a big season following a somewhat disappointing sophomore campaign. Johnson and Claypool will get plenty of support from rookies Pickens and Austin III, who showed considerable promise during training camp (Austin dealt with an injury near the end of camp but is not supposed to miss significant time).
George Pickens is Him. ? @steelers
?: #SEAvsPIT on @NFLNetwork (check local listings)
?: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/cINB23wRfG pic.twitter.com/1bCfMtkPe0
There is intense competition for the fifth and final receiver spot on the 53-man roster. The front-runner is Gunner Olszewski, who was a constant presence during camp. Olszewski is hoping to do enough during the Steelers’ final preseason game to hold off challengers Steven Sims, Tyler Vaughns, Miles Boykin and Cody White. Regardless of who gets the final spot, the Steelers’ receiving corps promises to be one of the league’s best in 2022, especially when you add in the receiving exploits of tight ends Freiermuth and Heyward.
This certainly wasn’t the case 6-7 years ago, when the Steelers’ pass defense was ranked among the league’s worst in passing yards allowed. The unit was vastly improved after the unit acquired Joe Haden in 2017, then traded to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick two games into the 2019 season. But the secondary took a step back last season after the unit last cornerback Mike Hilton, who helped the Bengals reach the Super Bowl after signing with Cincinnati in free agency.
The Steelers didn’t re-sign Haden this offseason, electing to instead re-sign Ahkello Witherspoon, who led the Steelers in picks last season, his first in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also brought in former Bill starting cornerback Levi Wallace, who was signed at a bargain two-year, $8 million deal. Pittsburgh kept continuity in its starting defensive backfield when it re-signed former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds, who has been a solid Robin to Fitzpatrick’s Batman during their time together.
Speaking of Fitzpatrick, the recent play of backup safety Damontae Kazee should give Fitzpatrick more of the freedom to do more of the things that made him an All-Pro during his first two years in Pittsburgh. Fellow backup Tre Norwood’s versatility will be put to use by new Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Pittsburgh’s secondary is led by Cam Sutton, who is one of five players who remain from the Steelers’ 2017 team, his first season in the league. Back then, Sutton was looking to find his niche while playing alongside veterans that included fellow defensive backs Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell. Sutton is now the elder statesman of a defensive backfield that is slated to be one of the league’s best in 2022.
“It’s definitely flying by,” Sutton told CBS Sports after practice. “Being able to still be affiliated with where I started, which is really special to me. … I want to continue to keep building my relationship with the team, the organization, the players coming in and out throughout the years. It’s been special.”
Sutton is embracing the leadership role that comes with being a veteran player, shared what he feels is the main pieces of advice he would offer to a first-year player.
“The biggest thing is your availability,” he said. “That’s one of Mike T’s big slogans: ‘The best ability is availability.’ Within that, just taking care of your body. Be detailed in your work and handling your business, not just on the field but off the field. And just keep putting yourself around good situations and good people of the direction that you want to go in.”
Injuries crippled Pittsburgh’s defensive line last year, as the unit finished dead last in the league in rushing yards allowed. Led by Cam Heyward, the unit looked vastly better during camp. Tyson Alualu’s return from injury certainly helps, along with the return of former Ravens first-round pick Chris Wormley, who last year had 2.5 sacks in Pittsburgh’s late-season win over his former team.
The D-line has been further bolstered by the additions of rookie DeMarvin Leal and free agent Larry Ogunjobi. Ogunjobi, who raked up a career-high seven sacks as a member of the Bengals last season, has made a quick impression on his new teammates.
“He’s as advertised, and better,” Heyward said of Ogunjobi. “He knows the game very well. Very smart. … He’s a powerful guy, and he’s only going to get better.”
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