Steelers duo Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt the very best of 'ends'

PITTSBURGH -- Cam Heyward always has the trump card on Stephon Tuitt, courtesy of AAU basketball in the Atlanta area, where the Pittsburgh Steelers' feared defensive ends both grew up.

Tuitt hooped for the Smyrna Stars with Heyward's younger brother, and Tuitt admits his game wasn't fully developed back then, which means Heyward can clown him without retribution. Heyward, 29, played AAU hoops, too, but as Tuitt's senior by four years, his teammate didn't see him play.

"When he talks about his basketball skills, I really know his basketball skills," Heyward said.

Tuitt's counter: "Now I am [better], but back in the day they were [better]."

This is life in the defensive line corner of the Steelers locker room, where two 300-pound behemoths playing on contracts worth nearly $120 million combined try to top each other on and off the field.

The Steelers like the sound of that. The absence of Ryan Shazier accentuates the need for big years from Heyward and Tuitt, who, if both are healthy, are among the best end tandems in the NFL.

Heyward elevated his game to All-Pro status with 12 sacks in 2017, while Tuitt fits the freak-athlete label and has shown flashes of dominance but also has battled injuries, including a partially torn bicep he played through all of last year.

"We know the damage we can do," Tuitt said. "If we can build and continue to work together, we can have a big season."

Heyward will take it a step further. He has been to playoff games but hasn’t tasted the Super Bowl as did the 1970s Steel Curtain, who made a near-yearly reservation. This defensive line should join that club.

"We take it very personally," Heyward said. "The tradition we want to set is we want to be back for those Super Bowl reunions at some point, where you get to talk about those fun memories. If not, you didn’t get the job done."

Heyward is quick to point out former top-10 pick Tyson Alualu is a big part of all defensive packages, while Javon Hargrave, Dan McCullers, L.T. Walton and others are providing sparks.

But Heyward and Tuitt set the tone. Describing the duo in a word, offensive guard Matt Feiler says: "Powerful." Maximizing that power means getting the best out of Tuitt, whose next step is a double-digit-sack season (his career high is 6.5).

Heyward will keep pushing his teammate because he sees Pro Bowls in his future.

"I’m like the big brother that has to teach him some stuff. We always want the best for each other and push each other in practice," Heyward said. "I’m hard on Tuitt sometimes because I know what he’s capable of. I know how great of a player he can be, and I just want to see him succeed."

Both players believe they can routinely beat single coverage, a "dominant group that they have to game plan for" with max protection, Heyward said. The mentality: If the offensive tackle doesn't have help, the quarterback is getting hit.

When Heyward went out with a torn pectoral muscle in 2016, Tuitt became an anchor and increased his disruption. Now he feels like an older brother to others.

"Now I’m starting to get to another step of learning and creating a predicament where if he’s gone, I can step into that [lead] role," Tuitt said.

Teammates notice Tuitt and Heyward sparking friendly arguments that eventually show "they genuinely like each other," as Alualu said. The merits of television shows is a frequent topic. Tuitt is a "Power" guy, while Heyward goes hard on "Game of Thrones."

On the field, Heyward knows what to expect from Tuitt. But once Tuitt gets going on nothing in particular, Heyward isn't sure what to do.

"He'll try to have these philosophical discussions about god knows what, like, 'What are you talking about?'" Heyward said. "Sometimes I try to engage him and keep going with it just to see how far I can get him to talk."

Heyward hopes that process continues well into January inside the locker room.