PHOENIX – There is a lot of uncertainty on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense as Kevin Colbert illustrated earlier this week.
The Steelers general manager said he sees as many as five spots open as far as starting jobs -- both cornerback positions, both outside linebacker positions and inside linebacker alongside Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons.
Two spots secure as any on defense are end, where Cameron Heyward has established himself as a cornerstone of the unit despite starting for only one full season and where Stephon Tuitt has a chance to really come into his own in his second season.
Tuitt, a second-round draft pick in 2014, took some time to adjust to the NFL and get comfortable in the Steelers' defense.
But he started the final four games of the regular-season after Brett Keisel went down with a triceps tear and showed flashes of why the Steelers thought they got a steal when the former Notre Dame standout slipped to the second round.
No play stood out -- and revealed Tuitt’s enormous potential – more than when the 6-foot-5, 303-pounder throttled Jamaal Charles from behind after the Kansas City Chiefs running back caught a screen pass.
Tuitt, who showed excellent pursuit on the play, forced a fumble that loomed large in the Steelers’ 20-12 win.
“I think his arrow was pointed up at the end of the season and from that standpoint it’s exciting,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He didn’t die on the vine the way some rookies are capable of dying. He’s a talented young guy. He was a third-year guy out of Notre Dame when we drafted him.If you look at our football team some of the most dynamic contributors have come to us under those circumstances -- Maurkice Pouncey, Le'Veon Bell, Lawrence Timmons and others. If that group is an indication of where he is capable of going then that’s exciting.”
Tomlin should be just as excited about Heyward, who doesn’t have Tuitt’s growth potential only because he has already established himself as one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.
Heyward led the Steelers with 21 quarterback pressures in 2014 and tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks. The 2011 first-round draft pick is carrying on the Steelers' legacy at defensive end, one he inherited from Aaron Smith and Keisel, his mentor.
“Cam Heyward is the core central leader to our defense and a good one,” Tomlin said. “He’s a good player. He’s got good football character. He’s hard-working. He’s a good communicator and he’s vocal. It’s been fun to watch him ascend over his years with us to that role. I look forward to him continuing to grow in that role.”