You know the saying “Competition Breeds Success”? Well, that very thing just might be happening now for the Steelers at the Defensive End position. According to ESPN’s Jamison Hensley (via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Mark Kaboly), Defensive End Ziggy Hood has been a workout mad-man this offseason and has really dedicated himself to becoming a better player in 2012. This offseason, Hood has dropped 6% off of his body fat percentage (24% to 18%), packed on 20 lbs. of muscle, and most importantly dropped 18 lbs. of fat to sculpt his body into a rock solid 6’3” 307 lb. frame.
Hood’s drastic transformation could not come at a better time, as Cameron Heyward will be vying for a starting spot and extended playing time in the Steelers’ 5-Technique Rotation (Hood, Heyward, and Brett Keisel) in 2012. To me, the fact that the Steelers have three talented Defensive Ends which will be jockeying for time on the field this season is nothing short of fantastic. So today I figured would be a great opportunity to discuss my feelings on Ziggy Hood, their “go-to” 5-Technique rotation in general, and the sorts of things expected from this group this season.
In terms of playing the run, Hood’s off-season work to strengthen and streamline his body can only help him against the run. Hood’s 5-Technique position calls for him to have a 2-Gap responsibility in the run-game and at the very least hold at the point of attack if not more. While Hood has done a decent enough job against the run in the Base-sets there has still been some room for improvement. Because Hood has added strength and worked on his agility, it should help him against the double teams and man 2-Gaps better while trying to create a mess for the Linebackers to clean up in the run game.
What intrigues me the most is to see what the more athletic Ziggy can do rushing the passer. Hood in my opinion is the best 5-Technique the Steelers have in terms of pass rushing ability at the moment. That being said, if him and/or Keisel/Heyward and/or McLendon can provide a stout enough pass rush and at least push the pocket in Nickel and Dime sub-packages where only 2 of them are on the field, it will only give James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and whichever guys are getting to the Quarterback more leeway to run free and attack.
With 23 starts and four professional seasons under his belt, Hood is what I consider to be a veteran. I am sure he knows better than anyone that he will be eligible for Free Agency in 2014 and strong showings in the next two seasons are vital for him to continue to contribute at the professional level and earn a new contract with Pittsburgh or elsewhere. Thus, 2012 and 2013 are make or break for Ziggy, and it certainly appears that he wants to take his already developing game to the “next level.”
Heyward and Keisel
Before I continue, kudos must go to Colbert and Co. when they zeroed in on a “BPA+Need” selection in the form of Heyward last April. I am sure they conversed with Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell and Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau at length and determined that Aaron Smith was likely on the tail end of one of the best and most unheralded careers of a 5-Technique Defensive End in the last two decades.
Moreover, I am sure that they saw that the addition of a player at a position of need, and where a 3rd year man like Ziggy Hood was the only experienced and significant depth was an added bonus as well. And I am sure it did not hurt that Heyward had the ideal size (6’5″ 288 lbs.), skill-set, experience in a pro-style Defense with 3-4 elements (at Ohio State), and professional attitude to play the 5-Technique with the club.
I am sure that I am one of many which are extremely excited to see what Heyward can do in Year 2 of his professional career. Cameron looked much further ahead development and scheme-wise than Hood was during his Rookie season, and that was without OTA’s and such because of last year’s lockout. While Cameron started a bit slow, big things are expected from him this season, and Hood seems to already be feeling the heat. As I discussed in the Defensive piece of my two “Breakout Players” posts from last month, Heyward is definitely somebody to keep our collective eyes on this season, and could shine as part of the 3-man rotation.
I know that I have discussed it at length before, but the biggest benefactor of all of Heyward’s continued development and Hood’s desire to step up his game is Brett Keisel. At 34, Keisel still has some solid football left in him, and he made the Pro Bowl following the 2010 campaign. But at 34, he is still getting a tad “long in the tooth” and keeping the wily veteran fresh will be a bonus for this Defense. If Mitchell and LeBeau are comfortable with Heyward and Hood together in games and subbing “The Beard” out for spells at a time, Keisel will undoubtedly be quite fresh come December and January. With a healthy “Beard” comes a happy Defensive Line and Defense as a whole come Playoff time.
I understand that these are only offseason workouts and that Hood is not actually kicking some tail out there against real live opponents yet. Nevertheless, seeing Hood’s dedication to get better and outplay his competition is something to look forward to in Training Camp. Hopefully this group can stay healthy and form a stout 3-man rotation at the position over the course of the year (4 if you count McLendon at 285 lbs. but 3 if he is at 325 lbs. and asked to man the Nose). My ultimate hope and wish is that Hood and Heyward can step up their games enough to relieve Keisel whenever he needs a breather. While “The Beard” may be one of those ostracized elderly Steelers Defenders that some in the media decry, he can still bring it. If all three can contribute regularly and at a high level, good things will happen because not only will they be making plays, but the Linebackers and Defensive Backs will be free to do their jobs and more. So as I stated previously, competition can breed success, and in my mind it could very well breed some great success along Pittsburgh’s Defensive front in 2012.