It was late-April of 2009. The Steelers were fresh off of their most recent Super Bowl title, and their “competitive window” appeared to be open for at least another three to four years before they needed to undertake any sort of massive rebuilding project. Thankfully for Pittsburgh’s brass, they had a three-year window to stock their rosters with talented draft picks.
These newly drafted players would be tasked with taking over for some of the franchise’s best players in recent memory, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. So with their first round selection in the 2009 draft, the Steelers selected Ziggy Hood, a defensive lineman from the University of Missouri.
The pick itself made some sense at the time. Pittsburgh would eventually need a defensive end to replace then-long-time starter Aaron Smith, who had just turned 33 years of age earlier that April. Four years have now passed since the Steelers selected Hood, and just as the front office and coaching staff had planned, Ziggy took over for Smith at defensive end.
Unlike most younger players on the defensive side of the ball, Hood was actually thrust into a starting role relatively early in his career. While most players are riding the pine during their first, second, and sometimes even third seasons on a Dick LeBeau coached defense, Hood was forced into the starting lineup after long-time starter Aaron Smith went down early in the 2010 season.
Over the course of the season, Hood showed some massive improvement when he filled-in for Smith. From a production standpoint, Ziggy doubled his statistical output from his rookie campaign in tackles, sacks, and passes defended. Best of all though, Hood illustrated his ability to rush the opposing passer during postseason play as he racked up 2.0 sacks in three games.
Hood was relegated to backup duty behind Smith once again in 2011, but another season-ending injury sustained by Smith allowed Ziggy to start a career-high 14 games during his third year in the league. Then last season, after Smith retired that March, Hood started all of 16 of Pittsburgh’s regular season games and set or tied career-highs in tackles (42), sacks (3.0), and passes defended (three).
To his credit, Hood has suited up for every one of the 64 regular season games during his professional career, and has earned and logged 39 starts over the course of the last three seasons. That type of durability and the upward-trending statistical production have been nice to chart, and were not necessarily been issues for the defensive end during his first four seasons.
Nevertheless, Hood’s overall consistency and effectiveness at the defensive end position have become big issues since he assumed a full-time starting role during the 2011 season.
Moreover, Hood’s collective performance has not made us in “Steeler Nation” forget the steady consistency of a Pro Bowl player like the guy he replaced, arguably one of the two best five-techniques to play during the decade of the 2000′s.
A one-gap defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme in college, the former Missouri Tiger still has struggled at times as a two-gap defensive end in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 base defense. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette alluded to this earlier in the spring when he mentioned how it has been evident to many that Hood is at his best when he can use his athletic ability to his advantage. I agree with Dulac, especially since Hood was a successful gap-shooting three-technique at the college level.
Due to his new position though, Hood must still prove that he is more capable of clogging gaps and anchoring at the point of attack so his linebackers can flow to the ball and make plays. Consistency in those areas of the game are musts for any successful defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, and Hood has yet to do those types of things on a regular basis during his professional career.
Is it necessarily fair to compare Hood to Smith? Maybe not. I will however say that the Steelers’ brass ignored some pretty pressing positions (offensive tackle, offensive guard, cornerback) of actual need in round one of 2009 to take Hood to be the heir apparent to Smith, who at the time appeared to have another season or two of effective football left in his tank.
While Hood is slotted to start once again this fall, he needs to make a big splash because he is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Statistical improvement aside, I am sure that Hood’s output and success over the last two and a half years were what the team’s brass were thinking of when they envisioned him to take over for a player like Smith.
Due to the lack of depth at the defensive end position though, Hood is likely to be re-upped by the Steelers’ front office after this year. Ziggy however has one last chance to completely “cash-in” with a stellar performance this fall.
I am sure that nothing would thrill Pittsburgh’s coaching staff more than to see the former first round pick live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him after he was drafted.
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