Steelers veteran DT Cam Heyward returns to practice after groin surgery, return to play uncertain

FILE - Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward is introduced before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. Heyward returned to practice on Thursday, Oct. 26, for the first time since tearing a groin muscle in the season opener against San Francisco.(AP Photo/Matt Freed, File)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward returned to practice on Thursday for the first time since tearing a groin muscle in a season-opening loss to San Francisco.

Doctors cleared Heyward early Thursday following the latest in a series of MRIs. He went through the majority of the two-hour workout with his teammates, though the 13-year veteran cautioned it's too soon to say when he'll be ready to return to the lineup.

“That's above my pay grade,” said Heyward, who is on injured reserve. “I'm sure someone's got it planned out for me, but I hope to beat that (plan).”

Heyward was chasing San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy in the first half of what became a 30-7 blowout at the hands of the 49ers when Purdy threw the ball away.

The 34-year-old Heyward went into an unintentional split that tore a muscle in his groin that required surgery.

“I didn’t know what happened at first, but I couldn’t move like I wanted to,” Heyward said. “Tore the adductor. I was already dealing with a core muscle injury, so both played a part. It just happens in the game we play. Not running away from it. Excited to get back out there when I can, but it’s been a process.”

The Steelers (4-2) have held their own in Heyward's absence with a handful of younger players such as rookie defensive tackle Keeanu Benton and second-year defensive end DeMarvin Leal taking on a larger workload next to veteran Larry Ogunjobi.

While the numbers aren't particularly pretty on the page — Pittsburgh is 31st in total defense heading into a visit by Jacksonville (5-2) on Sunday — the group has found a way to keep opponents in check late. Three of the Steelers' four victories have come in games in which they trailed in the second half.

“Is it perfect? No,'” Heyward said. “But guys are competing. It's just about staying in our gaps, getting off blocks, using our hands. I feel like guys are progressing every week.”

The Steelers have 21 days to activate Heyward off injured reserve. Given the team's compressed time schedule — they host Tennessee next Thursday, meaning there will be no padded practices early in the week — it seems likely Heyward will have to wait at least until Green Bay comes to Acrisure Stadium on Nov. 12 to have his familiar No. 97 run out of the tunnel and onto the field.

While hardly ideal, it beats the alternative for a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro who has been durable well into his 30s. Before going down against the 49ers, Heyward hadn't missed a game since tearing a pectoral muscle in 2016.

The past few weeks haven't particularly been fun for the married father of three. When Heyward texted his wife Allie that he'd been cleared to practice, she texted back that it must mean his almost maniacal at-home rehab — he was using a laser to help speed up the healing process — was paying off.

“I’ve just been doing around-the-clock treatment, trying to take care of my body,” Heyward said. “It’s probably gotten annoying to an extent. You know, everybody’s trying to walk on eggshells around me, but I’m pretty sure my kids are really jumping all over me when I get home.”

NOTES: Ogunjobi (shoulder) and WR Diontae Johnson (hamstring) did not practice Thursday. ... CB Levi Wallace (foot) and CB Joey Porter Jr. (calf) were limited.